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Realm of the Stars, Volume III: War for the Crown (Updated 4/3)


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Welcome back, everyone, to the next installment of my ongoing space fantasy saga Realm of the Stars! For those just joining us, this is the third volume of a series I pitch as "Star Wars meets King Arthur meets Dune" and is the ending of the initial trilogy I have in mind (though I still have plans for more works in this universe!) - if you're looking for the Arthurian parallels, then this story's events would roughly correspond to Arthur's war with Rome. If you're interested in checking out the previous installments of this series, then Volume I is here, Volume II is here and some character portraits are here

And here we go! Prologue and Dramatis Personae:


Dramatis Personae




Artakane ast Carann: Queen of the Dozen Stars

Karani ast Katanes: Her adopted sister, daughter of the Baron of Katanes

Latharna Dhenloc: A Realtran-born knight and Champion of the Crown; the Queen’s lover


Mardoban ast Orlanes: Duke of Orlanes, former Regent of the Dozen Stars

Pakorus ast Orlanes: His son


Gilgam ast Uran: An officer of the Royal Guard

Leilin Rehan: An officer of the Royal Guard


The High Prelate: Senior cleric of the Church


Ceana Preas: Ambassador of Realtran


Aestera ast Carann: Former Queen of the Dozen Stars and mother of Artakane, deceased




Varas ast Katanes: Baron of Katanes, father of Karani and adopted father of Artakane


Danash ast Dakatis: The Baron’s aide and confidante




Darius ast Sakran: Duke of Sakran

Tariti ast Sakran: Darius’s younger sister

Galen ast Sakran: Darius’s younger brother


Naudar ast Sakran: Deposed Duke of Sakran


The Council of Dukes

Kallistrae ast Tantos: Duchess of Tantos

Ariana ast Tashir: Duchess of Tashir

Digran Tassis: Duke of Aurann, former rebel leader

Vashata ast Malakan: Duchess of Malakan

Menandrus ast Kern: Duke of Kern

Laodamia ast Nadar: Duchess of Nadar

Argus ast Rastam: Duke of Rastam

Karous ast Saunn: Duke of Saunn

Zahra ast Medes: Duchess of Medes


Artemisia ast Orlanes: Duchess of Orlanes, estranged wife of Mardoban


 Realtran Kingdom


 Luagh ar’Realtran: King of Realtran

Cuinn Murcadh: Prime Minister of Realtran


The Headmistress: Headmistress of Dansa Academy, a Pervai; her real name is Tlaylli

Brother Ronall: A monk and swordmaster at Dansa Academy


The Empire


Verus Licinius: The Emperor

Publius Vedrans Quarinis: His advisor, former Ambassador to the Dozen Stars

Tertius Quarinis: A senator, elder brother of Publius


Admiral Cassius Decimus: Head of the Imperial Navy

Veradis Quintius: His aide


Al’Aymar Alaen: An Adept in the Emperor’s service, leader of the Adept Cabal

Al’Thai Amaru: An Adept in the Cabal

Gedeb Ashams: An Adept in the Cabal

Nicasius: An Adept in the Cabal




Raqisat Al’Fajra: A member of the Alaelam Conclave

Shifrad Al’Kaib: Her bodyguard


Specter: An information broker


Shiran: An Adept

Midaia ast Carann: An Adept, half-sister of Artakane


The Neraida: Ancient beings


Historical Figures


Artax the Founder: First king of the Dozen Stars


Caelus Magnus: Founder of the Empire


The Prophet: Semi-legendary founder of the Church

Matari: Founder of the Alaelam Alliance



Ordo Sancti Monastery, Imperium Primus, the Empire

Three-Hundred and Six Years Before the Founding of the Dozen Stars

Imperium Primus was a world of stone and metal, of mighty towers that glittered silver in the light of the sun, of palaces that dwarfed anything the ancients of storied Terra had ever dreamed, of orbiting shipyards that created and maintained the mighty fleets which sailed forth into the great dark, to bring all of humanity under a unified rule for the first time in more than a millennium, since the Third Republic had crashed in ruin. Imperium Primus, capital of the United Empire of Humankind; Imperium Primus, the center of the galaxy.

And yet, even in this world of mighty cities and great foundries, there remained some areas of green, where plant and animal life flourished and human construction did not dominate. These areas were not wild, not truly – they were preserves, created and set aside, carefully tended to provide some memory of what this world had been before it became the seat of Empire. Some of these preserves were large enough they might have made nations in their own right, and yet they were small compared to the majesty and power that surrounded them.

And they were not wholly devoid of human life. In one such preserve, not far from the Palatine City, a small building of stone nestled against the feet of a range of low mountains. It looked as if it might have been transported there from another time, some construction from old Terra before mankind claimed the stars, for those who made it sought peace and tranquility away from the bustle of Imperium Primus. It was a monastery of the Ordo Sancti, the Holy Brothers, monastics of the Church of the Cosmic Lord. It was a retreat from the worlds, a place of contemplation, of healing, and of learning.

The young man who stood at the monastery wall, looking out over the plains below, was one who had come there to learn. He wore the black robes of a novice with his hood cast back, revealing a shaved head and a dark complexion. He had lived most of his life in buildings like this one, for some said he had been born to the Church – his mother was a Holy Sister and his birth had been a scandal at the time, though she had since done penance for it. And he had inherited certain gifts from his father, gifts which the Church prized. The young man was an Adept, one of the most gifted to be born in decades, perhaps centuries, and today, he was troubled.

“I thought I’d find you here,” a voice said behind him; the novice turned to find another young man roughly his own age approaching. He was tall and handsome, with angular features that hinted at his patrician origins, and his skin was an olive tone that made him significantly paler than his companion. “Father Abbot sent me to look for you. He missed you at morning prayers, Aurelius.”

“I assume he’s angry with me, then,” Aurelius said, sighing. “I’ll have to do penance later, then.”

The other novice chuckled. “Well, he is,” he said. “But he was worried about you, too. You’re his prize pupil, after all, and it’s not like you to miss your prayers.”

Aurelius grinned faintly. “Whereas you would find a way to get out of them however you could, wouldn’t you, Lucian?” he asked, and they both laughed. Lucian was Aurelius’s closest friend – and, of the few Adept novices, the only one who could match his abilities. They’d long ago become comfortable with teasing one another.

“You know me so well,” Lucian said, shaking his head. “It’s not that I don’t believe in the Lord – you know I do – but, well, I just think we would better serve out there doing things than kneeling on a mat mouthing the same old words a dozen times.”

“The prayers help focus the mind,” Aurelius said, serious again. “That’s important for anyone, but especially for Adepts – you know that, Lucian.”

Lucian snorted. “You’re right, as usual,” he said. “Still, I can’t help but feel…” he shook his head again and fell silent. “There was another bombing in the capital last night. Did you hear?”

“No!” Aurelius said, dread welling in him. For years, now, the tensions between the patrician families – the gentes, as they called themselves – had been rising across the Empire. In some cases it was a matter of trade rivalries, in others, of ideology, and in still others, simple power plays. It had been simmering for some time, but in the last year, it had begun to come to blows, members of different factions openly attacking one another in the streets, with the Senate and the Emperor seemingly powerless to do anything. “Was anyone you know hurt?” Lucian had family in the capital; he was related to most of the major gentes.

“No, thank the Lord,” the other novice replied. “No one was killed, though a few were injured. It was at a major flitter station, though. Whoever it was, they wanted to send a message – that no one can stop them. The Emperor’s made his usual calls for unity, but I don’t think anyone will listen.” He turned to look out over the plains for a long, silent moment. “War is coming,” he finally said. “You can feel it to, can’t you?”

“Yes,” Aurelius whispered. A full-scale civil war hadn’t happened since the formation of the Empire, but with the way things were going – Lucian was right. The Emperor was weak, the Senate as heavily factionalized as the populace. War seemed inevitable, now. Would the Empire survive it? Would humanity?

The two novices didn’t speak to one another for a long time, and then finally, Aurelius made up his mind. “I had a dream last night,” he said.

Lucian snorted. “A shocking occurrence,” he muttered, then his eyes widened in understanding. “Oh,” he said. “You mean a dream dream, don’t you?”

“I do,” Aurelius said. Neither of them said the word prophetic, but it hung in the air. The elder monks didn’t like it – knowing the future completely, they said, was the province of the Lord alone, and an Adept who tried was liable to be deceived by possible visions that never came true, or misleading ones that only showed part of what was to be. But the fact of the matter was that sometimes Adepts had dreams that came true. Aurelius had that gift particularly strongly, and he always knew when his dreams were of the future.

“Well,” Lucian pressed. “What was it?”

“In my dream, I stood here, on this wall,” Aurelius said, “and on the plains below two great star serpents fought with one another. One was red, and the other was white. As they did battle, I knew that the fate of all the universe depended on the outcome of that struggle. For long, they were evenly matched, and the ground shook and groaned beneath them, but at last, the white serpent prevailed and devoured the red, reigning supreme over all that it saw.”

Lucian’s eyes widened and he stepped forward, putting a hand on Aurelius’s arm. “Are you certain?” he asked, expression intense. The star serpent was the greatest predator on Imperium Primus, though now they only existed in menageries; the white serpent was the symbol of Lucian’s family. “Was there anything else?”

Aurelius met his friend’s eyes and then shook his head. “There was nothing else,” he said after a pause. “That’s what I saw.”

Lucian stepped aside and began to pace. “It must be symbolic,” he muttered. “There haven’t been wild star-serpents in this area for a hundred years. The white serpent triumphed – could it mean my father? Does it have something to do with the war? Does it mean… will my father be emperor?” Lucian’s father was a leading member of one of the reformist factions; Aurelius had met the man a handful of times when he’d come to visit his son at the monastery, and had thought him a good man with noble ideas, but he had a hard time seeing him as a ruler. “Or will I…” Lucian stopped, shaking himself. He was training to be a monk, and monks and priests, under Imperial law, could not hold public office. “But wouldn’t it be something to have that power? To be able to just make everything right? To stop the bombings and the fighting before they start…”

Aurelius put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Calm down, will you?” he said. “It was just a dream – it might not even come true. And it may not even mean your family at all. It just seemed so real – I just had to think about it and tell someone.”

Lucian chuckled. “You’re right,” he finally said. “Just a dream. Probably nothing. Now, then, let’s head inside, before Father Abbot comes out here himself and has both our heads for wasting his time.” He laughed, but Aurelius thought he heard something strained in his voice. The dream had clearly meant more to Lucian than he’d realized, and his words troubled him. Maybe he shouldn’t have shared the dream after all…

Or maybe, he thought as they both turned and walked back into the monastery, he shouldn’t have withheld the last part, of the warrior in gleaming blue armor with a crown of stars upon her brow who had brought the white serpent low – but no, that part had been faint, and had come when Aurelius was waking up. It was probably nothing. Just his imagination, intruding on the vision.

The war which both novices had feared came not long after, shaking the Empire to its core, and when it ended it left a weakened Senate and an Imperial throne that had consolidated its power in its wake. Centuries later another war would come that would lead to the outer colonies breaking away, giving rise to new nations as the Empire’s power waned. Still the United Empire of Humankind in name, but not in truth – though there were still those on Imperium Primus who dreamed the old dreams of power and glory.

Aurelius was there through it all, as was Lucian, for powerful Adepts live long, long lives – and both of them were very strong indeed. Their stories wove in and out of the history of the galaxy, and in time they took other names which they were to make famous. But neither of them ever forgot Aurelius’s dream or the conversation on the wall that long-ago morning, and in time the events that were set in motion that day would lead inexorably once again to war – a war in which the fate of an empire and of the humanity it had once ruled would at long last be decided…


Edited by MasterGhandalf
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Chapter One

The Planet Carann, Capital of the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars, Royal Palace

Realm Year 489

The young woman’s eyes snapped open as the last vestiges of the dream came apart and she found herself once again in the bedroom where she had now slept for most nights of the past year and a half. It was a large room – too large, she still thought sometimes – and opulently decorated, though now, in the middle of the night with the windows closed it was mostly lost in shadows. The bed, too, felt overlarge; though it was certainly comfortable, it sometimes added to the feeling that these chambers were meant for grander personages than the girl who now occupied it.

That, of course, was untrue. Artakane I was Queen of the Dozen Stars by right of birth and conquest, and this bedroom and the suite in which it was situated were hers as they had been her mother’s before her. Since she had been crowned, she had faced trials and begun to grow into the role it seemed fate had set for her. But sometimes, late at night, she still felt like that girl from Katanes who was overwhelmed by the world she had somehow stumbled into.

The dream was gone, but she was awake now and felt no inclination to return to sleep. Arta stood slowly, careful not to disturb the person who lay curled up in the bed beside her and pulled her sleeping robe more tightly around her body as she padded across the floor towards the window. She raised her hand and blue light played along her fingers for a moment, and then the curtains and blinds opened before her.

The city of Carann, capital of the planet of the same name, which was in turn the capital of the Kingdom, stretched out before her in all its majesty, glittering as if the stars themselves had come down from the heavens to fill the valley which the palace overlooked. This late at night the sky was dark, and Arta couldn’t make out the specifics of individual structures, but she could see the pulse of the city by the way the lights moved beneath her. Some of them were immobile and stood in vertical clusters; those lights marked the countless towers that during the day made the city glitter like silver; between them moved horizontal lines of lights that marked the passing of flitters. Carann was the largest city on the most heavily populated planet in the Kingdom; it never truly slept, not even in the middle of the night.

My people, Arta thought to herself. That is what those lights signify. And I am their queen; their protector. Protector of the Realm – that is one of my titles. Perhaps the most important. That is what I am for. I am here not to enrich myself at their expense, but so that they might live their lives in peace. It was a heavy burden for a girl who’d only just turned nineteen to carry. But then, Arta suspected it would be no easier at any age.

She rested a hand on the glass of the window and watched the city beneath her in silence, for how long she didn’t know. Gradually, her thoughts strayed from her responsibilities and towards the dream she had just woken from. It had been as clear as life at the time, and even now stood clear in her mind, not fogged by wakefulness and dreams so often were. Arta was an Adept, and Adepts sometimes dreamed true dreams – dreams of power. She had only experienced such things rarely herself, but tonight she was certain of what she’d seen. Normally, they were of the future, or of possible futures, though Arta knew it was possible, albeit dangerous, to communicate in dreams with someone in the present. This had been neither of these.

Tonight, Arta was certain, she’d dreamed of the past.

She remembered the monastery she’d never seen, on Imperium Primus, a world she’d never visited before and hoped she never would. And she remembered the two young men who had conversed with one another upon the monastery wall. The names they called one another hadn’t been familiar, but she was certain she knew them both. Aurelius, dark-skinned and serious, she was certain was the man she knew as Shiran – her tutor and mentor, and the greatest Adept she’d ever known. The other, the one called Lucian, she was less certain of – she couldn’t put a name to him, but she was certain she’d seen him somewhere before. But where?

Memory suddenly rose to the surface – a night, almost two years ago aboard her adopted father’s yacht, and a conversation she’d had with Shiran when he’d told her of a dream he’d had in his youth, and how he’d told it to his friend – and how he’d implied disaster had resulted from it. Arta’s breath caught in her throat. Was Lucian that same friend? He must have been, but who was he, really? And what had happened as a result of that day that had convinced Shiran he’d have been better off to have stayed silent?

Arta wished Shiran were here so that she could question him in person, but he was gone on one of his many strange and secret errands. Midaia, too, was not here, though Arta’s older half-sister was an always unpredictable and somewhat untrustworthy ally at the best of times. She claimed dedication to the Kingdom and to Arta but served that loyalty only how she saw fit; still, she was a powerful and learned Adept. But neither of them was here, and Arta was left to puzzle through these mysteries on her own.

“Credit for your thoughts?” a voice whispered in her ear and an arm wrapped itself protectively around her shoulder. Arta smiled and turned slowly to face Latharna Dhenloc; she hadn’t heard the Realtran knight leave the bed and walk up behind her, she’d been so absorbed in her own thoughts. The two young women were of similar height and build, with the lean muscles and athletic grace of trained swordswomen, though they were quite different in appearance otherwise. Arta’s skin was a warm tan and her hair was black, the most typical coloring on most worlds of the Dozen Stars, but Latharna was a true albino, her hair and skin both stark white, her only blemish the thin dueling scar on her right cheek. While Arta’s hair was worn long, after the common fashion for upper-class women in the Kingdom, Latharna wore hers cut short. And while Arta’s eyes were brown, Latharna’s, revealed now in their true color because the lenses she normally wore to enhance her vision had been put away for the night, were a pale blue that looked almost lavender in the city’s silver light.

Some people found Latharna’s appearance strange or disturbing; Arta thought she was beautiful. But then, she supposed she was biased. Latharna had, after all, saved her life. Several times.

Seeing Latharna’s inquiring expression, Arta shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said. “Couldn’t sleep – bad dreams.” It wasn’t technically accurate, but while Latharna was proficient at an amazing number of things, she was no Adept and couldn’t help Arta here, so there was no point in worrying her for now. “Nothing to worry about now, though.”

Latharna didn’t look convinced. “You’re not telling me everything, are you?” she asked. “Be honest with me, Arta. I’m your knight, and I…” I love you went unsaid, but Arta heard it, nonetheless. “You can talk to me.”

Arta considered for a moment, then drew a deep breath. “Do you ever worry about the past?” she asked. “And how it can affect the future?”

Latharna shot her a flat look. “I grew up at a school, Arta,” she said. “I studied a lot of history. Of course, I do.”

“Well, that’s what I’m worried about now,” Arta said. “It’s been months now since the rebellion ended and Quarinis fled, and since then, the Empire’s been quiet. Too quiet for my liking. They failed to get us to destroy ourselves from within, but surely the Emperor didn’t just give up and decide to leave us alone. They’ll be back, Latharna. I don’t know how or when, but I know they will. They want to finish what Quarinis’s assassins started. It’s all about history, Latharna – my history, yours, my mother’s, the Empire’s, the Kingdom’s – and somehow it all fits together, but I don’t see how.” And the people who do know aren’t here to explain things to me. And somehow, she knew that two boys who had spoken on a monastery wall centuries ago had set these events in motion, but how their story fit into hers she was still trying to understand.

“Arta,” Latharna said, sympathy in her eyes. “I’m your knight, and I am your lover. I will fight for you, I will protect you, I will counsel you, be there for you to cry on my shoulder if you have to – and right now, I’m telling you that you won’t solve this by brooding by your window in the middle of the night. You have an important meeting with the council tomorrow, remember? The Kingdom needs you rested. Go back to bed and get some sleep. We’ll deal with what comes next in the morning.”

Arta smiled wryly. “I suppose you’re right, as usual,” she said. “Is that the official opinion of the Crown’s Champion, my knight?”

Latharna returned her grin. “I suppose it is at that, my queen.” Leaning in, she planted a quick kiss on Arta’s lips.

Arta raised a hand that once again flickered blue, and the blinds and curtains closed behind her, casting the room back in darkness once again as she let herself be led back to bed. Latharna was right. She couldn’t solve all the Kingdom’s problems here and now by herself; tomorrow’s problems, she would have to face tomorrow. For now, she needed her rest.


Karani ast Katanes considered herself to be a woman of straightforward character. The fact that she had found herself sister to a queen – through a series of events she still had a hard time believing – didn’t change that fact. In some ways, it didn’t mean much. Karani was the older sister by almost a year, but since she and Arta weren’t related by blood, that didn’t make her a princess, or convey any actual authority at all. It did mean, unfortunately, that Karani found herself constantly accosted by slimy people who thought she could get them an audience with Arta, despite the fact that over the course of a five-minute conversation she usually found herself wanting to hit them instead. It also meant she got to live on Carann, the most spectacular, beautiful planet in the Kingdom, which almost made the first part worth it.

One thing that hadn’t changed was that Arta was still Karani’s little sister, no matter what title she had or who her birth mother had been. And that meant Karani was obligated to look out for her.

Of course, looking out for Arta didn’t have to mean Karani couldn’t have a little fun for herself along the way.

Pulling her hood more tightly around her face, Karani made her way down a busy street at Carann’s ground level. It was late, of course – Arta was probably in bed by now – but a city like Carann never truly slept. Neither did places like the one she was currently headed for. She grinned under her hood; whatever his other faults, she had to thank Shiran for this – he’d given her a taste for the nightlife. So, she guessed she owed him. A little.

Finally she arrived at her destination; a door under a flashing sign that depicted an alien warrior – she thought it was a Csarag, not that the art was very accurate if that was the case – perched on a flitter bike and grinning as he hoisted a frothing mug in salute, above the name Marauder’s Trove. Shooting a grin back at the mascot, Karani marched up to the door and flashed her ID at the bored-looking bouncer who waited there. His eyes widened when he saw her name, but she held a finger to her lips and slipped him some credits. That ought to keep him quiet about who she really was.

Inside the tavern, Karani pulled back her hood and threw open her cloak, taking a moment to bask in the atmosphere. The place was dingy, lit with flashing signs advertising various products and a holoscreens tuned to various channels, most of them entertainment of one sort or another. It was noisy, full of people milling about or seated at tables or the bar, eating or drinking and conversing loudly with each other. Off past the bar, Karani thought she saw a dance floor and her eyes lit up – she might have to make her way over there later. Karani loved to dance almost as much as she loved to fight.

Despite what people who first met her sometimes thought, Karani wasn’t stupid. Quite the opposite, really. As a little girl, none of the assignments her tutors had given her had ever interested her because none of them had ever been hard. But Karani was an energetic and athletic girl and had grown to be an energetic and athletic young woman – the power and grace of the body in motion, whether in dance or combat, that excited her.

Spotting an empty seat at the bar, she sat down and called for the bartender to bring her a drink – a special whose name on the menu had caught her eye. For a moment she glanced around warily, but it seemed like nobody recognized her. That was good. Most people in the Kingdom had heard the name of Karani ast Katanes, the queen’s sister, by now, but Karani wasn’t in public view as much as Arta, nor was she as immediately recognizable as Latharna. Most people didn’t seem to know her by sight, and they certainly wouldn’t expect her to turn up in a seedy bar in the middle of the night.

Karani’s drink – not, admittedly, her first this evening - arrived and she sipped carefully as she watched the other patrons around her. Most of them were young, athletic, and had the air of people who knew their way around violence – and some of them still wore the colors of whatever duchy or barony they hailed from. Which was why Karani had made a point of coming here; Marauder’s Trove was a haunt favored by young soldiers and even a few knights attached to the retinues of the various council members, and if the place was packed tonight, it was because of the prospect of tomorrow’s meeting. Arta was meeting with the council, all of them, in person, not over holo. She had announcements to make, and though she was riding a wave of popularity following her defeat of the Dukes’ Rebellion at Tantos III, some of the reforms she’d been proposing ever since hadn’t exactly been met with acclaim.

And so, Karani was here to listen to a bunch of drunk soldiers from various duchies boasting and gossiping with each other, in case they let slip something that Arta needed to be warned about. And, admittedly, to enjoy her ale, which was surprisingly good. Karani made a note to come here more often.

The first half-hour or so, however, proved distressingly unfruitful. Normally, Karani would have been fascinated to hear about the interconnected web of love affairs and duels of people from far off planets, which was what most of the patrons here seemed to be talking about, but so far she heard nothing that would be remotely of interest to Arta. And it wasn’t even like she could recommend the place – Arta was a queen and queens didn’t go out drinking with the common people, not that Arta drank much anyway. Apparently, alcohol and Adept powers didn’t mix well. And Latharna didn’t drink anything stronger than water; probably what came of having been all but raised by a monk. So Karani just sighed and turned her attention to one of the holoscreens, which was showing a game of shatterball, a sport she was fond of, though she didn’t follow either of the teams currently playing.

Suddenly the door slammed open and a half-dozen people walked in, clad in red and gold. Karani went on alert; red and gold were Sakran colors. Darius ast Sakran may have changed sides at the end of the Rebellion and turned the tide of battle, but the truth was a lot of Sakrans still supported their old duke and didn’t agree with their new one’s decisions.

Karani tensed as the Sakrans moved towards a table, whose previous inhabitants quickly scooted aside to make way for them. Their leader was a big fellow, and not half bad looking, though he had a nasty smirk on his face; the others took up seats around him as a mech floated over to take their orders. Karani leaned over surreptitiously as the leader began talking, the others hanging on his every word.

“It’s a damned disgrace, is what it is,” he was saying. “Duke Naudar wouldn’t have stood for it, I tell you.”

“Naudar’s not Duke anymore, Ark,” one of the other Sakrans pointed out. “Darius is, and he seems tight with the queen these days.”

“Darius may be a great swordsman, but I tell you he’s no politician,” Ark spat. “The girl’s got him snowed; don’t know how, but she does. Maybe she used an Adept trick, got inside his head. She’s a snake, that one is. And you know what I heard she’s going to do tomorrow?”

“What?” the Sakrans asked, leaning in close.

“I heard that she’s going to strip the nobility of their power and rights!” Ark said, pitching his voice loud enough to carry across the room. Karani imagined it was on purpose; he wanted people to hear. “’Cause she’s scared, see? Doesn’t want another rebellion, so she’s going to take our power and turn us all into a bunch of Realtran weaklings!” Karani smirked inwardly at that, wondering what Latharna would make of being described as a “weakling.”

“And I hear,” Ark went on, “that she’s still holding Duke Naudar, too. And that she’s going to execute him someday soon, as a warning against anyone else who might stand up to her!”

Karani’s glass hit the floor and shattered. “That’s a lie,” she spat, rising to her feet.

Ark looked up, expression dark. “Are you calling me a liar, girl?” he asked.

“Clearly, I just did,” she shot back. “I know for a fact that Duke Naudar is to be publicly tried for sedition and rebellion, but he probably won’t be executed. Life in prison is more likely.” Mentally, for the first time in her life, Karani thanked the old civics lessons she’d had to sit through. “Queen Artakane follows the law. Unlike some.”

The Sakrans stirred as Ark rose to his feet and marched over to Karani. She looked him straight in the eye; he seemed surprised by that. This Ark struck her as the kind of fellow who was used to looming over others, and perhaps specially to looming over women, but Karani came from a tall family on her father’s side, and she was tall even by their standards. There were few people indeed, men or women, who could loom over her.

If Ark was put off by this, he gave no sign. “Why don’t you keep quiet about things you know nothing about, huh?” he asked, voice dangerous.

“Well, if we’re talking about knowing nothing, I think you’d best look in the mirror,” Karani returned in the same tone. “Because I see a man who doesn’t know as much as he thinks right in front of me.”

Ark growled. “I am a knight of Sakran Duchy, girl,” he said. “And I will not be spoken to in that tone!”

“Well, I’m a knight of Carann Duchy and the daughter of a baron, so I will speak to you however I choose,” Karani said. “And you’re what, five years older than me? So, lose the ‘girl’, thank you.”

“Yeah, why don’t you sit down, big fellow?” a voice said from behind her; Karani saw several people from the bar move to join her, and recognized a couple of them belatedly as off-duty royal guards; thankfully, none of them seemed to have realized who she was just yet.

“Yeah, Ark,” a woman from the Sakran table said. “Sit down, have a drink. This doesn’t have to get worse.”

“Doesn’t it?” Ark asked, eyes smoldering. “Well, you say Duke Naudar was a rebel and a traitor, but I say the real traitor is sitting on the throne of Carann! That girl is witch; everyone knows it. She probably used her arts to trick her way into power – how do we even know she’s related to Aestera at all? And what about that Realtran freak she made her champion and a Knight of the Realm, eh? Nobody ever heard of the girl before; you want my opinion, I think the witch just knighted her because she crawled into her bed…”

Ark never got a chance to finish that thought; Karani’s hand came up sharply, and then her palm slammed directly into his nose. He stumbled backwards, reeling and cursing; the other Sakrans caught him and held him steady. When he looked back up, there was blood streaming down his face. Not so handsome now, are you?

“You hit me!” Ark said, rage and disbelief warring in his voice. Weapons weren’t allowed in the Trove, but his fellows were balling up their fists behind him and dropping into fighting stances. Karani’s companions did the same.

“That I did,” she said, grinning. “And I’ll do it again, too, since you don’t look like you’ve learned your lesson quite yet. Come now, boys. Shall we dance?” Grinning even wider, Karani raised her hand and beckoned in challenge.

The Sakrans charged, fists swinging. 


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Chapter Two

Carann, Royal Palace

Arta groggily rubbed sleep from her eyes as two of her guards escorted her into a small study in the palace’s royal apartment level; Latharna still hovered protectively just behind her. They’d just been roused less than ten minutes ago and had barely had time to throw on heavier robes over their sleepwear. Based on what Arta had gathered from the guards’ hasty explanation, the issue she had to deal with now wasn’t a dangerous matter, but neither was it something that would improve with age.

The study was plain and bare, and didn’t seem to have been used for some time; aside from the window in the far wall and the bookshelves on the walls, the only notable feature was the desk in the center of the floor, with chairs on either side. Another guard – Leilin Rehan, commander of Arta’s personal detail – stood behind the chair on the far side, in which slumped a battered and tipsy-looking, but undeniably pleased with herself, Karani.

Arta groaned and rubbed her forehead as she sank down into the chair across the desk from her adopted sister. “Please tell me this isn’t what I think it is,” she said.

“That depends on what you think it is, little sister,” Karani said, slurring her words slightly. Arta gave her a quick look-over and sighed. Karani’s clothes were torn, she had bruises on her face and her hair had started to come undone from its customary braid, but from her overall air of satisfaction, Arta doubted anything had gone too terribly wrong for her. As she was looking her sister over, Karani seemed to notice Latharna standing behind her and gave a jaunty wave; the Realtran returned the gesture with a flat look.

“Well,” Arta said, “my guards seem to think that you snuck down into the city earlier tonight and got into a bar fight. With a group of knights from Sakran Duchy!” She slid her eyes over her sister again. “And, judging by the state of your appearance, I’d say that sounds pretty accurate. Please tell me I’m wrong.”

“Technically, I started the bar fight,” Karani said. “And I finished it. Otherwise, yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

“Tell me you didn’t,” Arta groaned, burying her face in her hands and imagining with growing dread how she was going to explain this to Darius at the council meeting tomorrow.”

“I did,” Karani said. “And honestly, Arta, you don’t go into those sorts of places, but if you did, you’d have hit the guy too. He called you a witch.” She paused, looking over Arta’s shoulder at Latharna. “And he called you a freak. And he didn’t actually say the word ‘slut’, but I think it was implied. He deserved it. And so did everyone with him.”

Arta groaned again. “And just how many people did you beat up in a seedy bar, Karani?”

Karani shrugged. “Lost track,” she said. “Wasn’t just me, though. Had help. Lots of people do like you, you know. Just not jerks from Sakran.”

Arta slammed her hands on the table. “It doesn’t matter if they like me, and it doesn’t matter what they said, and it doesn’t matter if they deserved it!” she almost shouted. “Karani, you may not be my sister by blood, but you are my sister, and that means that when you go into a bar and beat up a bunch of people from another duchy for not liking me, it’s a problem! I need Darius’s support in the council, and yes, he’s been trying to do everything he can to prove he’s loyal to the Crown and that he’s not his father, but when you throw the first punch against his people, he has to respond to that! And frankly, you’ll be lucky if you don’t end up on tomorrow’s news.”

She slumped back in her chair and looked over at Rehan. “How’d she get dragged back here, anyway?”

Rehan sighed. “The bar’s owner called the constables when the fight got out of hand and they showed up and arrested everybody, Your Majesty” she said. “One of their officers recognized Lady Karani and called the Guard so we could come pick her up discretely. I don’t know if anyone else recognized her, but I don’t think we’re lucky enough for word to not get out at all.”

“Lord,” Arta muttered, rubbing her forehead again as Latharna put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “The tabloids are going to have a field day with this, aren’t they? I can see the headlines already – ‘Drunken Princess Assaults Loyal Citizens.’”

“Technically, I’m not a princess,” Karani said, raising a finger as if she was a tutor making a point of a particular detail. “’Cause I’m not related to you by blood, so that means I’m not in the line of succession.”

“Somehow, I don’t think people will care,” Arta said. “And the point still stands that you are drunk. Give me your hand.”

“Why?” Karani asked, but nonetheless held out her hand as requested. Arta took it in both of hers and concentrated; blue light and an electric tingle played around their fingers and then Karani suddenly opened her eyes wide and sat back in her chair, seemingly more alert than she’d been during the entire meeting. “Whoa,” she breathed, her speech much clearer. “Well, I was drunk, but I don’t think I am anymore. That was bracing. I did not know you could do that.”

“I found a reference to the technique in a book in the palace library,” Arta said, “though technically it’s for poison and not alcohol, I figured the principle was the same. Since I needed you sober, it seemed like a good time to test it.”

Karani winced. “I guess that was pretty stupid of me, wasn’t it?” she asked. “But I’m not sorry I broke the guy’s nose. If you’d heard the things he was saying about you, you’d agree with me.”

A warm feeling of affection for her sister rose in Arta’s heart, warring with her exasperation. “Well, just go and try to clean yourself up, will you?” she asked. “And see what you can do to hide those bruises. We have an important day tomorrow,” she glanced over at the time displayed on a clock on one of the bookshelves, “or maybe today, by now. Let’s just hope that the dukes aren’t too offended by this – or at least, that they manage to avoid hearing about it until after the meeting.”

“Aye, aye, my Queen,” Karani said, sketching an exaggerated but sincere salute before hauling herself to her feet and leaving the study; Rehan took quick glance at Arta before following her and shutting the study door behind her, leaving Arta and Letharna alone.

When they were gone, Arta looked and the door and shook her head, sighing fondly. “Her heart’s in the right place,” Latharna said. “But maybe she could have done with attending some of Dansa Academy’s classes in diplomacy and etiquette.”

“You underestimate Karani’s ability to avoid learning things that don’t interest her,” Arta said. “But if what she said was at all true, I probably would have hit that Sakran knight too if I’d been there.”

“I’d have probably done worse,” Latharna said, but her tone, rather than being satisfied, was troubled and subdued.


Latharna stood in front of the mirror in her personal quarters and adjusted the cape that hung over one shoulder. She was dressed in a fine uniform which resembled those of the palace guard, but was more elaborate, as befitted a knight of the Realm and the Queen’s chosen champion. Her dueling sword hung in a sheath by her side. The uniform was mostly blue with gold thread at the cuffs and across the chest, for those were the colors of the royal house, but her cape was red, the color of Realtran. Together they symbolized who she was now, and where she had come from.

But not, unfortunately, where she was going. She was content with where she was now – more content than she’d ever been in her life – but so much of the future still felt uncertain. She remembered her brave words to Arta after the defeat of the rebel dukes and the escape of Quarinis, when she had promised to find an ideal so grand that even if it could not be attained, it would make a person better in striving for it. So far, she wasn’t sure if she had.

Latharna possessed a tremendous talent for the sword, an inherent gift that had been honed by years of study and practice with Brother Ronall, the swordmaster at the Dansa Academy. But there was something else buried inside her too – a need to fight, a bloodlust she could lose herself in during the heat of battle, and that frightened her. She was scared of the things she might do – of what she might become – if it swallowed her forever, but all the same, she could no more put down her sword forever than she could willingly cut off her arm. She thought she could find a way to channel that ferocity as a weapon in a just cause. Surely the Lord wouldn’t have put this in her if she couldn’t master it, couldn’t use it for something good. She just had to find the way.

Turning away from the mirror, Latharna slid her gaze across her room – a spartan one in many ways; the Headmistress of Dansa Academy had little use for luxuries that didn’t involve her garden or her birds, and she had instilled a similar austerity in her ward. Latharna’s bed was small and plain – and these days rarely slept in, she thought with a faint smile – as was her desk and computer terminal. Otherwise, she had a wardrobe with a selection of court and practical clothes, a stand for her sword – now empty - and, closest to her heart, her personal shrine which she’d brought from her previous quarters and her harp, a gift from Arta. Prayer and music – the books she’d been reading lately suggested various means of calming and disciplining the mind, but those were the ones that worked for her.

Though small by the palace’s standards, these quarters were still on the royal level and were larger than the ones she’d had when she’d served her brief tenure as Ambassador Preas’s aide. Latharna had moved into them after her official promotion to the role of Queen’s Champion, and it had amused her to find that they contained a discreet hallway connecting directly to the royal apartments. Apparently, Arta wasn’t the first monarch to have maintained a… liaison with someone at their court.

Arta and Latharna hadn’t publicly announced their relationship – a monarch was expected to maintain a certain amount of discretion, after all – but neither had they particularly kept it a secret. Latharna wasn’t sure if she was more irritated by people snickering behind their hands and calling her the “Queen’s Mistress” or those who thought the affair was terribly romantic – apparently, the people of the Dozen Stars were quite moved by the idea of a knight and her liege noble finding love, and weren’t shy about explaining that, at length. Well, at least it was slightly less annoying than the young nobles – mostly girls – who had been so impressed by Latharna’s role in the liberation of Aurann and the defeat of Quarinis’s praetorians that they’d decided to make her their role model, to the point that some had started dyeing their hair white in tribute to her. She still didn’t quite know what to make of that.

Latharna paused, taking one last look in the mirror and straightening her cape a final time, before bowing in the direction of her shrine and murmuring a brief prayer for luck before leaving the room. The council meeting would begin soon, and she would be expected at Arta’s side.


Arta sat on the throne of the Dozen Stars, clad in an elaborate blue gown and with her crown on her brow; Latharna and Karani stood one step below her on the dais, the former on her right hand, and the latter on her left, positioned as her honor guards. They faced outwards, towards the shimmering silver walls and high, vaulting ceilings of the council chamber, and to the chairs that ringed the throne in a semicircle, now facing inwards. There were eleven of them, for these were the seats of the dukes and duchesses of the Kingdom, and the council was in session – and, in a true rarity, all of its members were present in person.

Duke Mardoban ast Orlanes sat in the chair immediately to Arta’s right; he was a dignified man of middle years in a fine uniform. He had been one of Queen Aestera’s closest friends and one of Arta’s mentors, and he regarded her with a serious expression and warmth in his eyes. Directly across from him sat Darius ast Sakran, just a couple of years older than Arta and as ever, distractingly handsome in the red and gold of his duchy. He had newly come to his post after his father, Duke Naudar, had been revealed as a traitor for his role in the Dukes’ Rebellion.

Beside Mardoban was Kallistrae ast Tantos, ruler of Arta’s home duchy; she also wore a uniform, looking every inch the knight she was. Beside Darius was Digran Tassis of Aurann, recently confirmed; a commoner by birth, he had led the resistance against Duke Respen and become duke after the tyrant’s death, though he’d refused to take the surname ast Aurann or even to add the particle ‘ast’ by itself to his name. He’d told Arta he took pride in his origins, and no matter how far he rose, he’d never stop being who, and what, he was. He was also handsome, though in a more roguish way than Darius; he’d exchanged a flirtatious wink with Karani when he’d entered the chamber, which she’d returned.

To Digran’s left was Vashata ast Malakan, a handsome, athletic woman who seemed to treat everything as a game; to Kallistrae’s was Menandrus ast Kern, a thin man with an oily air who was one of the most openly cynical of the dukes, viewing everything as a means to advance his duchy’s interests. He was related to Arta as some sort of cousin, since her biological father, according to Mardoban and Shiran, had been a nobleman from Kern duchy; Arta had never known the man, who had died shortly after Aestera, and had no particular interest in trying to connect with Menandrus, who wasn’t as nakedly ambitious as Respen or Sateira had been, but was still not someone whose eye she wanted to draw to the throne.

Beside Menandrus sat the youngest member of the council, slightly younger than Arta herself – Ariana ast Tashir, niece of the late and unlamented Sateira. Even by the standards of her wealthy duchy, she was dressed in a rather ostentatious and elaborate – not to mention low-cut - gown, along with enough fine jewelry to fund all of the royal palace’s operations for a month, and Arta thought she seemed to be trying to catch her eye. The fact that Ariana had been one of the first of the council to arrive on Carann and had spent much of that time intimating she would enjoy having a chance to spend time with Arta didn’t do much to change that impression. Of the new leaders of the three duchies that had risen in rebellion, she was the only one who hadn’t directly played a part defeating her predecessor; perhaps she thought to raise her standing with the crown by attracting the queen’s attentions. Which she won’t, Arta thought, as I happen to be taken. But so far, in any case, Ariana had shown no sign of continuing her aunt’s treacherous legacy.

Duke Argus of Rastam and Karous of Saunn, and Duchess Zahra of Medes were all seasoned politicians, but their three duchies were considered the weakest in the Kingdom, and they tended to follow the lead of whoever seemed ascendant at the moment. Between them, directly opposite Arta, sat Duchess Laodamia ast Nadar, by far the longest-serving council member. Her gown was tasteful, her gray hair elegantly arranged, and her deeply lined face was unreadable. She had outlived four husbands and as many monarchs; it was sometimes said that kings and dukes rose and fell, but Laodamia was unmovable. Looking at her now, Arta could believe it.

“Your Graces,” Arta said once everyone was seated and the guards – led by Leilin Rehan and Gilgam, a veteran who had served with Duke Mardoban – had nodded to her that the room was secured. “Thank you all for joining me in person on this historic day. Our beloved Kingdom has been recently torn asunder by civil war, and I wish to extend my thanks to those of you who took a direct part in helping to bring that conflict to a decisive end before more lives were lost or worlds ruined.” Mardoban, Digran, Darius, Kallistrae, Vashata and Laodamia all inclined their heads in acknowledgment. “Those who began this war are now either dead or imprisoned, but the harm they have done lives on, and we all must take steps in order to prevent it from happening again. Therefore, I direct your attention to the items of business which I have forwarded to your personal networks; I trust you have had time to peruse them prior to your arrival here.”

Arta’s fingers tapped the keypad built into the right arm of her throne; a moment later, a holoimage depicting a length document appeared in midair before her. Around the room, the council members did the same. “During the Dukes’ Rebellion,” Arta continued, “I saw our Kingdom’s laws and traditions brutally abused to serve the ambitions of tyrants and madmen while their people suffered. I say to you now that this cannot be allowed to continue. I seek to institute these reforms in order to prevent something like the Dukes’ Rebellion from happening again, but I am not a tyrant like Verus Licinius of the Empire. It has long been our law and tradition in the Dozen Stars to place matters such as these – matters which effect the entire Kingdom – before the council to vote. Therefore, Your Graces, I open the floor for discussion.”

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Menandrus ast Kern said, “but I have read these proposals in detail, and they are absurd. To begin with, you wish to institute the Code of Carann as a standardized legal code across the Kingdom? You have no right!”

“I believe she does, if a majority of us vote along with her,” Mardoban said. “And besides, several duchies already use the Code of Carann as a model for their laws; Orlanes does, as, I believe, does Sakran. The Code grants rights and protections under the law to all subjects of the Dozen Stars, regardless of rank. Personally, I find it a quite enlightened system.”

“Adopting the code was your predecessors’ right and choice,” Menandrus said. “But it has been the tradition of the Dozen Stars that each duke or duchess be permitted to rule their duchy as they see fit, not beholden to laws imposed from Carann!”

Digran snorted. “Yes,” he said. “And that meant that if some bastard of a duke decided he wanted to be a tyrant, nobody could stop him so long as he kept it to his own turf. Convenient, that.” His hand rose and absently rubbed his neck; Arta knew he’d once worn a slave collar there, and still had the scars. “I took this position not because I wanted privilege or power for myself, but to ensure freedom and safety for my people. I say that if tradition lets monsters like Mad Duke Respen keep their power, and these new laws don’t, then Her Majesty’s proposal has my support.”

“And mine,” Ariana added; a little too quickly, Arta thought. “Tashir Duchy deeply regrets its role in the hostilities, and we wish to do all we can to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. We are at Her Majesty’s disposal.”

“Be that as it may,” Kallistrae said, running a finger down the list, “these proposals also include heavily restricting the power of the Guilds. They are not going to like this, Your Majesty. Not one bit.”

“The Guilds claim to be the voice of the common people, and a path anyone can take to power and wealth,” Arta said, “but I think we both know that in reality, almost all of that wealth goes into the guildmasters’ pockets as they happily exploit their workers to enrich themselves. I know you haven’t forgotten how Guild Security threw in with Sateira, Respen and Naudar for the promise of profit when they seized your planet. I do not propose abolishing the guilds, but I feel recent events have proven they must be reined in – and the common people assured protection from depredations that might as well be piracy.” Several of the dukes looked uncomfortable at that; Menandrus and Ariana in particular ruled planets that had close ties to the Guilds. Kallistrae merely looked determined and angry; she’d nearly lost her planet to Guild treachery not so long ago.

“I am intrigued by this final proposal,” Laodamia said, scrolling her list down to the bottom. “The creation of a representative body modelled on the Realtran Parliament to meet here on Carann to serve as a counterbalance to the power of the council and the throne. It’s a bold move. Not unprecedented – several of our duchies already have such bodies, including my own Nadar – but not something ever before done on this scale, at least not in our Kingdom. I admire the idea in principle, but I have to wonder if such a sweeping change could feasibly be implemented.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Menandrus said. “Just another attempt to unify power here on Carann, and under Her Majesty’s thumb. The Dozen Stars was founded on a principle of home rule for the Duchies. Artakane, you may say you’re not like Verus Licinius, but you certainly seem to be acting like him, seeking means to enforce your personal power where it is neither needed nor wanted.”

“The parliamentary representatives will be elected by the people of their duchies, not appointed by me,” Arta said. “Therefore, their loyalty will be to their constituency first, rather than to the throne, giving the people a direct voice in their government. The dukes and barons will, of course, retain their votes and their titles, providing stability in the form of leaders who do not need to worry about being re-elected. I have studied the Realtran system thoroughly,” she added drily. “And for several hundred years, it seems to have worked.”

“Yes, but we are not Realtrans!” Duke Karous declared. “We are the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars, and we do not need some… assembly… to tell us how to rule our duchies!”

“Yes, and we’ve clearly been doing that so well,” Vashata said. “Last I looked, Realtran hasn’t had a civil war or major insurrection in a hundred years and hasn’t had a monarch assassinated in longer than that. A better record than we have.”

“I admit, I’m curious,” Darius said, leaning forward. “We have a parliamentary assembly on Sakran as well. But I do have to wonder about one thing – democratic systems are a fine idea in theory, but in practice they can be easily swayed by public opinion or fall prey to corruption. What’s to stop the Guilds or nobles from trading influence with money, or a charismatic demagogue from subverting the entire system through personal force of will? How are you going to enforce your ideas, Your Majesty? Especially across a dozen duchies whose people, to be honest, are often more loyal to their own planets than they are to the Kingdom as a whole?”

Arta opened her mouth to speak – this was one area where she was still troubled and uncertain – but before she could, the door to the chamber opened and a guard entered. He quickly conferred with Rehan, who nodded and hurried over to the throne, going down on one knee. “Forgive the interruption,” she said, “but we have a situation. A shuttle has just entered orbit, Your Majesty. It has broadcast a message declaring itself a diplomatic craft, and its signal appears legitimate.”

“What nation is it from, Captain?” Arta asked, but in her heart, she knew the answer. Dread seized her.

“The shuttle is from the Empire, Your Majesty,” Rehan said. “And its passengers demand immediate audience.”


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Chapter Three

Carann, Royal Palace

Arta gripped the arms of her throne as the doors to the council chamber swung open and six towering figures marched inside, their metal steps thundering across the stone floor. Roughly humanoid in shape, they were far taller and broader than any human, and their bodies gave the impression of warriors sheathed from head to toe in impenetrable armor; their helmeted faces were impassive. A casual observer might take them for mechs, assuming that they were entirely products of the Empire’s foundries, but Arta knew better. Their bodies were mechanical, true enough, but buried deep inside their torsos were organic brains that had once belonged to decorated soldiers of the Legions. They were praetorians, the monstrous cyborg warriors who served as guardians and enforces of the Empire’s elite.

Beside her, she could hear Latharna’s cape rustling as she tensed, one hand going to the hilt of her sword. Arta couldn’t blame her; it had taken one of the fiercest fights of her life for the two of them, along with Darius ast Sakran and a squad of royal guards, to bring down just two praetorians who had covered Ambassador Quarinis’s escape. Six of the creatures could probably kill everyone in this room if they wanted to.

Of course, Arta had ordered Rehan to make sure the praetorians’ weapons were deactivated before they were permitted in the palace. Looking at them now, though, that felt like small comfort.

The praetorians approached silently, carrying a large platform between them; they came to a stop in the center of the chamber and deposited it there, and the dukes turned their chairs forward to face it. Arta frowned and leaned forward, regarding it, and then she realized what it was – a large holoprojector. The praetorians stepped back and saluted, and a shimmering figure materialized in midair above it.

The man the holo depicted was tall and thin, clad in the understated white uniform of a senior member of the Imperial civil service. He was clean shaven, after the fashion of most Imperial men, and he was an older man, his face lined and his short hair grey. His bright, penetrating eyes flickered over the council and then finally settled on Arta, and her breath hissed between her teeth as she met his gaze. She knew this man.

Through his agents, he’d killed her mother.

“Quarinis,” she said, taking pain to keep her voice level and cold. “How dare you show your face here again?”

Publius Vedrans Quarinis, Imperial Patrician and until recently the Emperor’s ambassador to the Dozen Stars, smiled thinly and inclined his head. “I do as I am commanded, as do we all,” he said. “Your Majesty, Your Graces, thank you for receiving me. I am grateful to be able to speak with you once again, after the… unpleasantness regarding my departure from your Kingdom.

“What makes you think we have any interest in anything you might have to say, traitor?” Arta asked.

Quarinis raised an eyebrow. “Traitor?” he asked. “I am not a subject of your crown, Your Majesty. I am a loyal subject of His Majesty the Emperor, and all that I have done, I have done at his bidding. I betray nothing. So please, tell me – by what metric am I a traitor?”

“You betrayed the hospitality of the Dozen Stars and abused your position as ambassador to cover your dealings in treachery and murder,” Arta said. “You are a regicide, a conspirator, and a coward, hiding behind your master’s name in order to escape justice for your crimes. Consider yourself fortunate you’re not here in the flesh, or I would have my guards arrest you where you stand.

“No doubt you would,” Quarinis said. “Which, alas, is why I must conduct my business with the Dozen Stars remotely rather than risk visiting Carann again in person.”

“And what business, exactly, do you have with us?” Darius asked, leaning forward. “Was inciting civil war in the Dozen Stars not enough for you?”

“Ah, young Sakran,” Quarinis said, nodding at him. “I will admit, your father and his compatriots required very little ‘incitement’, as you put it, from me. They were quite eager to rebel and would have done so with or without my backing. I simply wished to ensure that, should they have triumphed, the transition of power would be as smooth as possible.”

“So, are we to take it that you had the best interests of the Dozen Stars at heart all along?” Darius asked. “I find that hard to credit.”

“Think what you will, it matters not,” Quarinis said. “I do not come before you today to argue about the conflicts of the past. I appear before the throne and council of the Dozen Stars at the command of my lord, Verus Licinius, Emperor of Humanity, to extend to you the hand of friendship and brotherhood.”

“What do you mean?” Arta asked, dread welling in her chest.

“For too long, humankind has been divided,” Quarinis said. His tone and cadence now seemed to be those of a man reciting a message he had rehearsed. “The people of the Dozen Stars and Realtran have been at odds with the Empire for centuries; for almost as long, the Empire has warred with the fanatics of the Alaelam Alliance. But once, there was a time when all humanity was united under the banner of a single state. The Emperor understands that your ancestors had reason to take up arms against that state and declare your independence. He will not deny the abuses to which his predecessors had put their position. But now Verus Licinius wishes it to be known that a new age is dawning. The Alaelam have been defeated at Bahrina, their vaunted navy destroyed. The Alaelam War is over, and now the Emperor wishes only for peace and unity.

“Therefore, Verus Licinius extends this invitation to his sister monarch, Her Majesty, Artakane I, Queen of the Dozen Stars. Come to Imperium Primus. Meet with the Emperor, and pledge to work with him in building the new age to come. The Dozen Stars has been wracked by piracy and revolt, and the Emperor acknowledges he has played a role in bringing these events to pass. Therefore, he offers his help in rebuilding. He will place the Imperial Legions at Her Majesty’s disposal to keep the peace, and the Empire’s treasury at her disposal to finance rebuilding.”

“And what,” Arta asked, “does Verus Licinus demand in return for his generous assistance?”

Quarinis smiled. “Only a simple thing,” he said. “The Empire has primacy among all human nations. We were the first to rise from the chaos following Terra’s fall and to restore civilization to a galaxy in a dark age. The Emperor requests that this primacy be honored. He requests that Her Majesty swear her fealty to him as her liege lord and acknowledge the power and antiquity of the Imperial throne, that the strife between us may at last be put to rest and the Dozen Stars brought once again into the Imperial fold.”

Arta sat back in her throne, stunned into silence; at her side, Latharna put a steadying hand on her shoulder, while on her other side Karani’s mouth worked in utter shock, though no sound came out. Across the entire council chamber, silence fell. Then it erupted into chaos.

“This is absurd!” Menandrus shouted, jumping to his feet. “How dare you come here and make such demands? This is beyond all reason!”

“Need I remind the council that Publius Vedrans Quarinis was involved in the recent rebellion that lead to my aunt’s treason and death?” Ariana said, her voice ringing clearly. “His very presence here is an insult!”

“A demand for our Queen to pay homage, Imperial troops patrolling our worlds – these ‘requests’ are nothing more than enslavement!” Digran shouted angrily. “The Emperor would have us put our own necks on the chopping block! Aurann has already overthrown one tyrant; we won’t suffer another so soon!”

“These are serious things you would demand of us, Quarinis,” Mardoban said; he didn’t raise his voice, but his tone was cold. “And tell me – what happens if we refuse your generous offer?”

“The Emperor does not wish things to come to such a pass,” Quarinis said, spreading his hands. “He is sincere in his desire to bring peace and unity to the galaxy. But his generosity is not lightly refused. And do not forget that for the first time in centuries, the Empire does not have an enemy at our back to bleed our strength dry.” He turned back to Arta. “But I address myself to the Queen of the Dozen Stars. What say you, Artakane? Will we have peace and friendship?”

Arta sat quiet and still with hands folded in her lap. Her gaze went to Latharna’s pale face, concern and fear in her eyes, and then to Karani, who was glaring at Quarinis as if she’d have liked nothing more than to launch herself bodily at the hologram. Then her gaze went to Mardoban, who was regarding her patiently; the former regent nodded once at her, as if to say he’d trust whatever decision she made. He’d known her mother, she thought. Mardoban had been one of Aestera’s closest companions. Some said he’d loved her, though he had never acted on it.

Her mother, Aestera. Murdered by the Empire, leaving Arta to grow up a fosterling ignorant of her heritage. Murdered by the order of this man who now stood in holo-form before her and dared to demand her submission.

“We of the Dozen Stars would be happy to take the Empire’s hand in friendship,” Arta said, “and to have peace as equals; but you do not offer peace. My people have long memories, Ambassador. We remember whole planets burned for defiance, their populations enslaved, their leaders cruelly put to death in the arenas on Imperium Primus for the entertainment of your patricians. And we remember a queen murdered in this very chamber, not twenty years ago, by assassins you created. Tell your Emperor that the Dozen Stars was born in rebellion against his Empire, and that we will not bow down before it, or any tyranny, ever again.”

Silence once again hung in the chamber, but now it was of a wholly different character. Beside the throne, Karani was grinning, and while some of the dukes looked anxious, they all looked determined as well. Even more than with Arta’s own requests earlier, their pride and positions were at stake and they would not back down now. But she kept her gaze locked on Quarinis’s; the former ambassador’s expression was unreadable.

Finally, he said. “Am I to take it that this is your answer, then?” he asked.

“It is,” Arta said coldly.

Quarinis’s expression was disappointed, but not surprised. “Very well. I shall relay your words to Verus Licinius.” He paused, and the air was heavy with the implied threat of his words. “You shall receive his response soon.”

The hologram flickered and vanished. The praetorians stepped forward and picked up the projector, then turned silently and carried it from the room. When they were gone, the doors slammed shut behind them and Arta sank back into her throne, her heart hammering in her chest as she feared just what these events might portend.


Once the praetorians had been escorted from the palace and returned to their ship, the council called a recess so that the dukes could contact their individual worlds and tell them what had happened and command their people to stand ready for any signs of potential Imperial aggression. Not long after they left the chamber, Mardoban found Arta standing in the corridor outside, leaning against the wall with one hand and breathing heavily. Latharna and Karani stood off to one side, looking concerned as the duke approached.

“She’s troubled,” Latharna said, putting her hand on Mardoban’s arm. “I tried to talk to her, but this is out of my experience. I just… didn’t have the right words.” Seeing the concern on the young Realtran knight’s pale face and in her wide, red-tinted eyes, he felt his heart break for her, and for all of them. He remembered being in a position not unlike hers, standing at Aestera’s side at the beginning of the Csarag War and knowing that too much rested on their shoulders despite their youth, wanting to assure her that everything would be all right despite not knowing how – and knowing, on some level, that it would be a lie. He was older and wiser now, but Aestera was long past the point where any advice could help her. Now it was her daughter who stood in her place.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, giving Latharna a reassuring smile and walking over to where Arta stood, clearing his throat to announce his presence. Arta looked up at him, and he could see the fear and doubt on her face – that face that looked so much like Aestera’s had almost forty years ago.

“Mardoban,” she asked quietly, “did I do right?”

“That’s a rather large question,” he said. “If you want any sort of real answer, I think you’re better off talking to the High Prelate than to me, though I’ll warn you, he’ll likely keep you busy for a while if you do.”

She shot him a cross look. “You know what I mean,” she said. “Just now, with Quarinis. He didn’t say the word ‘war,’ but I heard his tone when he talked about the Emperor’s ‘response,’ and so did you. The Empire is going to invade; they’re going to finish what they started when they killed my mother, and I don’t know if we have the strength to stop them. Should I have agreed to his demands, or did I just doom us all for no other reason than my own pride?”

Mardoban sighed. “I don’t know whether we can win a war with the Empire or not,” he said. “They are far weaker than they were when they ruled all the galaxy, but they’re still very strong – and nobody knows for sure how strong, except the Emperor himself. If only we had some means of getting in contact with the Alaelam and learning how much of a beating they gave the Imperial armada before they were defeated…” he shook his head. “But you know what they say about wishes. In any case, I think the Emperor wants war and would have had it regardless of what you said or did today. The rebellion of the Dozen Stars and Realtran and our breakaway from their rule was the end of their golden age, and they’ve never forgiven us for that. And I know Quarinis, and these demands he issued today aren’t his style. There was no subtlety to them. I think the entire embassy was calculated to enrage us. From the presence of the praetorians to the demand for your submission to the very fact that Quarinis himself, a known enemy of the Kingdom, was their spokesman. The whole affair was designed to be an offer the Dozen Stars could never accept.”

“Then you don’t think my accepting would have changed anything?” Arta asked.

“No,” Mardoban said, shaking his head. “I think young Tassis was right – if you went to Imperium Primus, you’d be putting your head on the chopping block, and I’m not being metaphorical. I don’t think you would be likely to return alive from that meeting, and the Empire would have the excuse it needed to occupy our worlds, which the dukes would never stand for.” He snorted. “I’ve spent half my career trying to get the council to do things they don’t want to without much success; I doubt Verus Licinius would have had any better luck. No, Arta – it didn’t matter what you said or did today. The Empire wants war and was merely looking for an excuse.”

“Listening to his demands, remembering what he did,” Arta said, “I just couldn’t let that pass. I never expected to be queen, and I never wanted it, but there’s so much that I think we can do for the people of the Dozen Stars. I don’t want to be the queen who sold her people back into Imperial oppression, and I couldn’t let that murderer think I would ever back down for him.”

“You did what a queen of the Dozen Stars should do,” Mardoban said. “What Aestera would have done. Think of it as a duel, except with the whole Kingdom at stake. Your enemy has made a challenge, and you’ve accepted.”

“And now,” Arta said, nodding, “we need to figure out how to win.”


The remainder of the council meeting was not as productive as Arta might have hoped. All of the dukes seemed to approve of her defiance of Quarinis and rejection of the Emperor’s demands, thank the Lord – not that this was the way in which Arta would have chosen to unify the council behind her. None of them was willing to give up an inch of ground to the Kingdom’s oldest enemy, and, she suspected, several of them were quietly glad to have the chance to discuss something other than her proposed reforms to the Dozen Stars’ legal system. Unfortunately, every duke or duchess seemed to have different ideas about how war with the Empire should be run, and none of them was willing to listen to each other. The meeting dissolved into heated arguments, as Digran Tassis extolled the virtues of guerilla tactics against a stronger, better equipped force, Menandrus recommended hiring mercenaries to take the brunt of the worst fighting for them, and Vashata called for a surgical, preemptive strike against Imperium Primus itself in an attempt to kill Verus Licinius before he could launch an attack of his own.

Finally, the meeting ended with no conclusive results save for a general requirement that each duchy’s military be marshalled and stand ready for attack, while Mardoban and the crown intelligence service gathered information regarding where the Empire was building up its forces and where they might be likely to strike. Arta, troubled by a bone-deep weariness and a splitting headache, quietly told Captain Rehan to have her guards watch over the dukes as they retired to their guest quarters and keep them from doing anything foolish before an overall course of action could be agreed on, and then retired herself to the royal apartments, sending even Karani and Latharna to their rooms. She needed to be alone, to meditate and try to calm her mind.

Arta waved the door shut behind her as she entered her bedchambers, itching to change out of the increasingly uncomfortable court dress and into a soft robe. With a thought and a minor exertion of her Adept power she flicked the room lights on – and then stopped in shock as they revealed a dark-cloaked, hooded person sitting in a chair by her bed. For a moment, Arta froze; her mind screamed assassin and raised her hands, desperately wishing she had a weapon. Then conscious thought caught up with instinct, and she realized who her visitor was.

“Don’t mind me,” the dark-cloaked figure said in a calm, feminine voice. “You seemed busy earlier, so I thought I’d let myself in and wait for you. These chairs are quite as comfortable as I remember them, by the way.” She reached up her hands and pulled back her hood, revealing the face of a woman slightly more than a decade Arta’s senior, whose features, save for their stark pallor, were strikingly similar to her own.

“Hello again, little sister,” Midaia ast Carann said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been busy, unfortunately. But now, I think it’s time we talked.”


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Chapter Four

Imperium Primus, Palace of the Emperor

The storm clouds hung heavy and brooding over Palatine City, capital of the planet Imperium Primus, itself the heart of an Empire that encompassed a thousand worlds and had at its height ruled over all of humanity. The great city seemed to be in a bustle under the shadow of the clouds, as if people were hurrying to see their business completed before the rain began. Every so often, lightning flickered faintly in the gloom in presage of the downpour to come.

Publius Vedrans Quarinis watched the gathering clouds from a window high in the tallest tower of the Emperor’s palace. The room itself was small, comfortable, tastefully decorated; a room for receiving personal guests rather than for conducting official business – though in truth, much unofficial business was indeed conducted here. Its window overlooked the sweeping towers and plazas of the city below; Quarinis’s gaze passed the Grand Arena dark now for no games were being played today, and the spires of the Church’s great Basilica before lighting on the man who stood with him, the room’s only other occupant.

Verus Licinius, rightful Emperor of Humankind, master of Imperium Primus and the thousand worlds beyond, was a tall man, broad shouldered and athletic. He stood watching the city below him with his hands clasped behind his back, clad in flowing violet robes that were more comfortable and less formal than his robes of state, but still left little doubt of his station. He was facing away from Quarinis, and so the one-time ambassador to the Dozen Stars could see only the back of his short, neat hair – mostly black, but with a bit of grey creeping in at the temples.

Licinius looked to be a well-preserved man in his fifties, but Quarinis knew he was older than that. How much older was the subject of much gossip in the Imperial court; the truth of the matter was one of many secrets regarding his sovereign which Quarinis was just as happy not to know.

“Is it done?” Licinius asked without turning.

“It is done, my lord,” Quarinis replied, saluting with a fist over his heart. “The ultimatum was presented and, as you predicted, rejected.” He paused, steeling himself. “I admit, I am curious as to why you requested that I frame your demands as I did. We both knew that the girl Queen would reject them. The people of the Dozen Stars are fractious, yes, but they are stubborn and proud, and have no love for us, or for your throne.”

“Too long has the Dozen Stars stood against us,” the Emperor mused, half to himself. “The very existence of their nation is an insult against the Empire’s rightful rule of humanity. There are others, of course, which have defied us, but it was they – and their allies in Realtran – who were the first. If I am to rebuild the Empire to its heights of glory, then the Dozen Stars must be brought to heel. And now we have our excuse. Our generous hand was extended, and it was slapped away. Now, we shall have war.”

“Of course, sire,” Quarinis said, nodding. In truth, this talk of the inevitability of war disturbed him, but he was not a senator or consul – creating policy was not his role. His purpose was merely to carry it out.

“And, of course, there are other matters,” Licinius continued as if Quarinis hadn’t spoken. “Matters of which you know, don’t you? Even if the Dozen Stars had acceded to us, Artakane would have needed to die, and her throne would have been abolished. You know why, my servant.”

“I do, my lord.” Though it was hardly a secret that the Emperor maintained a small cabal of Adepts loyal to the Imperial throne, Quarinis was one of the few who knew that Licinius was an Adept himself – an immensely powerful one. And he was one of even fewer who knew that the Emperor sometimes dreamed of the future, and that those dreams had convinced him that the Queen of the Dozen Stars would one day be his doom. This was the true reason for the Empire’s concentrated campaign to undermine the Dozen Stars and slay its monarchs; it wasn’t about regaining the Empire’s rightful primacy or avenging ancient wrongs, whatever Licinius said. It was about removing a threat to the power and life of the most powerful man in the known universe.

Slowly, now, the Emperor turned to face Quarinis. His face was hard, handsome, regal, and he appeared to be a man about two decades younger than the ambassador himself – at least, until one saw his eyes. Those eyes were ancient, and the weight of them seemed to bear down mountainously on anyone upon whom their gaze fell. They seemed to see into the soul; though perhaps there were reasons for that beyond the supernatural. Verus Licinius had been a pontifex of the Imperial Cult before the coup that overthrew his predecessor, the corrupt and incompetent Tibarus Graccus, had swept him to the throne, and he still had something of the priest in his manner.

That had been more than forty years ago, and Licinius had already looked like a man in his fifties then. Since taking the throne, in all the years that Quarinis had known him, he hadn’t seemed to age a day. Quarinis didn’t normally believe in the pontifexes’ declarations that there was some divine will which watched over humanity and was embodied in all the emperors in turn, but when he spent enough time in Licinius’s company, it was almost enough to make him have faith in the existence of the Imperial Spirit.


“Events are moving now,” Licinius mused, half to himself. “And destiny is in play. You did not manage to overthrow the Dozen Stars with your engineered civil war, my servant, but while that would have been useful, it is not necessary. You bought us time enough to crush the Alaelam threat and bring a swift end to the Third Alaelam War, and that is what matters. Now, we have a chance to bring all our power to bear upon the Dozen Stars. Artakane must die; this is the important thing. Midaia ast Carann as well, if it can be managed. The throne of the Dozen Stars must be crushed, that no queen may ever sit upon it again, and their entire kingdom brought to heel. Once that is done, Realtran will fall, and the minor nations, and at last the Alaelam homeworlds themselves. Once again, all humanity will bow before a singular vision, a singular rule, as should have been done.”

“A magnificent vision, my lord,” Quarinis said carefully.

“Yes,” Licinius said. “But it isn’t assured yet. We must move carefully, and yet decisively, if we are to prevail. I have come too far, sacrificed too much, to allow myself to be stopped now.” Pausing, the Emperor turned back to the window, staring out at the cloudy sky. “Can you feel that, old friend?” he whispered, and Quarinis knew that he was no longer the one being addressed. “Can’t you see the inevitability of what is to come? Will you not now admit that I was right all along?”

He shook his head. “It matters not. You are dismissed, Quarinis. Admiral Decimus waits outside; send him in as you leave. He and I have much to discuss.”

Quarinis bowed and saluted again. “At once, my lord,” he said. “I will await your pleasure.”

He turned to leave the room, and as he reached for the door, he risked one last look back over his shoulder. Licinius stood at the window once again, hands once more clasped behind his back, apparently lost in contemplation.

In the skies above Palatine City, thunder rumbled and the storm finally broke. The heavy rains began.


The Imperial Palace had stood for more than a thousand years, a mighty edifice towering above the peoples of the galaxy. It had been rebuilt and renovated many times, accumulating layer upon layer of new construction, but some remnants of the original structure could still be found if one went deep enough. The Palace’s foundations were sunk deep into Imperium Primus’s bedrock, and in their depths were catacombs that had been long forgotten. Forgotten by most, at least. There were still some who remembered and found uses for them.

He who walked through one such corridor now was such a person. He seemed more wraith than man at first glance, for he always went about shrouded in heavy, dark robes, his face concealed beneath an elaborately painted, inhuman mask. Though he had been a fixture at the Imperial court for decades now, few could say that they knew him well, and there were many rumors about just what lay concealed beneath his strange garments. He was not offended by the rumors; in truth, they amused him, and he’d started some of them himself. He was Al’Aymar Alaen, the Prince of Night, once a member of the Conclave of Disciples who ruled the Alaelam Alliance and now an exile in service to a foreign lord until such time as the One saw fit to return him to his rightful place. Alaen had no doubt that would happen, for he was an Adept of rare skill. The cosmos itself bent to his will.

He approached the door at the end of the corridor, where two soldiers of the Imperial Legions stood guard. They saluted in acknowledgment as he approached, for he was expected, and the door swung open to admit him. Alaen did not pay them any mind. They were dayif – non-Adepts – and therefore not worth his time unless they were foolish enough to set themselves against his plans.

A large room waited on the other side, shaped roughly like a dome with walls lined with strange images, meditation-aids from a dozen worlds, including some from the Alliance. Two figures waited him there, a man and a woman, both robed and masked as Alaen himself was. The woman was short and slender, clad in pale blue armor that clung tightly to her body and a cloak of white fur over it; her mask was of a human-like face that seemed carved from ice. The man was taller, taller even than Alaen; the robes that swathed his broad-shouldered frame were of gold, and his mask was of a face within a sunburst. The woman was Al’Thaj Amaru, Rain of Bitter Ice; the man was Gedeb Ashams, Fury of the Sun. Titles, not names; like Alaen himself, they had surrendered their birth names long ago so as to better find harmony with the will of the One. They had been his students in the days when he had still held an exalted rank in the Conclave of Disciples, and they were the only members of his faction to have followed him into exile and still lived.

They were Adepts both, of course. Though not the only members of the Adept cabal which Alaen headed for Verus Licinius, they were the most powerful and, as the only Alaelam, the only ones Alaen trusted completely.

They were both sitting with their legs crossed in meditation as their master entered. No sooner had the door hissed shut behind him than they both stood fluidly and turned to face him before bowing from the waist. “We are honored by your presence, Revered Disciple,” Amaru said in the language of the Alliance. “How may we serve you?”

“The time has come,” Alaen said. “Verus Licinius prepares his forces to make war upon the heretics of the Dozen Stars. We must make ready to accompany them.”

“At last!” Ashams said. “But, if you will pardon the question, my teacher, why the Dozen Stars now? Why not continue to pursue our war against the Alliance, that we might return you to your rightful place at the head of the Conclave?”

“The Emperor has his reasons,” Alaen said. “I trust you are aware of them.” He did not consider himself a servant of Verus Licinius – he was Al’Aymar Alaen, the Prince of Night, and he bowed only before the One – but for now, so long as he remained in exile, the Emperor was the most powerful ally he had. Alaen had never met an Adept as strong as Licinius, a fact which troubled him somewhat, for the Adepts of the Alaelam Alliance were typically more powerful than those of the Empire or the minor kingdoms. He certainly did not believe, as the ridiculous Imperial Cult taught, that merely occupying the Imperial throne made a man or woman the vessel of some nebulous divine power. No, Licinius had other secrets, and Alaen was privy to some of them, though not to all. But for now, he believed that the One had placed him here on this planet for a purpose, and that Verus Licinius was the instrument of that purpose.

For now. Someday, Alaen knew, the One would no longer require the Emperor to carry out their purposes. And on that day, it would be Al’Aymar Alaen, the faithful Disciple, whose star would rise.

“The Emperor has reason to fear the Dozen Stars,” Alaen continued. “Therefore, he seeks their destruction. We will aid him in this endeavor, as we are directed to do. And once we have secured his power against this threat, then he shall aid us in reclaiming Alae from those who have led it so badly astray. Do not forget – the Queen of the Dozen Stars may be young, but she is an Adept, one of us. Therefore, it will be we who shall be called upon to lay her low.”

“An Adept, yes,” Amaru murmured under her breath, “but an Adept who surrounds herself with dayif. She is weak.”

“Do not underestimate her, or her companions,” Alaen warned. “Even dayif can be dangerous. And there are those who support her who are Adepts.” He still remembered his battle not so long ago against the woman Midaia ast Carann, the queen’s half-sister. She had met him blow for blow. That defeat still rankled, not least because it was a dayif – an untried boy, no less – who had ultimately laid him low. No, Alaen would not forget that day – but he was wise enough that neither would he ignore its lesson.

“A lesson you should remember well, my student,” he said, nodding at Amaru. The woman stiffened, and Alaen imagined she was flushing under her mask. She had led an attempt to capture the man who now called himself Shiran, another associate of young Artakane’s, an Adept who, for reasons only he knew, the Emperor demanded must be taken alive. Amaru had four other members of the cabal with her, Shiran had been alone. And still he had escaped and captured her wrist comm in the process. The device had been quickly locked out of the Imperial network once she reported the theft, of course, but it still rankled her. Alaen expected her to do better next time.

“The time is at hand,” Alaen said. “There can be no further errors, no mistakes. We will bring the Dozen Stars to its knees and capture its Queen and bring her before the Emperor. In doing this, we obey the will of the One, and the One shall reward us with victory. In Matari’s name.”

“In Matari’s name,” the younger Adepts chorused, invoking the name of the man who had been the founder and guiding light of the Alliance, he who had attained enlightenment and first taught the truth of the One Who Is All. Matari had died a martyr, executed by the Empire. In time, when he no longer needed his alliance with Verus Licinius, Alaen intended to take revenge for that. But that was a dream that was far off yet.

“Master,” Amaru said, “before we proceed, there is one other… concern. Someone has been attempting to spy on the palace from the psychic plane. We’ve encountered several attempts since Bahrina and have thwarted them, but our intruder is persistent.”

“Midaia ast Carann?” Alaen asked. “She encountered the Emperor not long ago; I believe he plans to deal with her personally. Do not concern yourselves.”

“No, master,” Amaru said, surprising him. “The feel of the attempts is different. It feels… Alaelam. Whoever they are, they have been trained according to the Path, not by some Dozen Stars upstart.”

Alaen frowned beneath his mask, considering. “Intriguing. Perhaps the Conclave is not as badly defeated as they would have the Emperor believe. Keep a watch for this intruder, and alert me at once if they show themselves again. I wish to speak to them personally. Now, then,” he continued, “If there is nothing else, I believe that you have something for me?”

“Yes, master,” Ashams said. “The cabal captured a subject and brought him here earlier today. He awaits your presence.”

“Then let us not keep him waiting long,” Alaen told him and began walking towards the far side of the room, his robes billowing behind him as his students took up their positions by his side. Another door slid open between two of the paintings and the three Adepts walked inside; it sealed itself behind them.

The room in which they found themselves now was smaller than the meditation chamber they had just left and was clearly outfitted as a laboratory. Its walls were lined with computer terminals, but the center of the room was dominated by a table that was raised and tilted at an angle. Two men stood beside it, lower-ranking members of the Adept cabal. They wore robes in imitation of their master, though as they had not converted to the Alaelam Path Alaen forbade them the honor of wearing masks. A third man was bound to the table beside them; his eyes widened in terror as he saw the three Alaelam Adepts approach.

The two cabal members bowed towards their master. “Greetings, my lord,” one of them, Nicasius, said. “We found this man at a hotel here in the city. He has the gift, but not strongly. He did not wish to accept our invitation and tried to resist, but we subdued him.”

Alaen hummed quietly to himself as he bent over the man, studying his face. This man was an Adept, of course, as all subjects who were brought to this room were. Adepts were rare, especially outside the Alliance where few people knew the proper techniques to cultivate the ability, but in an empire of a thousand worlds, most of which had populations in the millions or even billions, a fairly steady supply of them could still be found, if one knew where to look. Those in whom the gift was strongest were recruited into the Adept cabal, granted a life of luxury beyond that of even most patricians in return for their services in any matter which the Emperor might require them.

Those whose skills were too weak to be deemed worthwhile met a different fate, for the Emperor had a use for them as well. Most were simply observed, but otherwise allowed to live out their lives. But periodically, the Emperor had certain needs that had to be met – and when he did, an Adept would be brought here, to the catacombs beneath the palace, and would never be seen again.

Al’Aymar Alaen was one of the few who knew what fate awaited them, for he was responsible for administering it. He had lived long, far beyond the span of an ordinary human life, and had seen and done many terrible things, but this procedure still left him uneasy, sometimes. But he reassured himself with the knowledge that the One called upon the faithful to make sacrifices, and that it would all be worth it in the end.

“Who are you?” the man strapped to the table demanded, looking up at Alaen’s mask with panicked eyes. “What do you want? What’s going on here? I’ve done nothing wrong; I swear! You have to believe me; I’ll testify before a magistrate, I promise!”

Alaen held out his hand and Nicasius placed a syringe in it. “Be calm, my brother,” he whispered in a soothing voice as he pressed the needle into the man’s neck and watched his eyes go glassy and his limbs slack. “Don’t be afraid. It will all be over soon.”


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Chapter Five

Carann, Royal Palace

“Midaia,” Arta breathed. “What are you doing here?”

“What? Can’t I check in on my only living family from time to time?” Midaia asked, a faint smile twisting the edge of her mouth. “In this case, though, my visit isn’t entirely for pleasure. I wasn’t exaggerating just now when I said we need to talk. There are things you need to know, Artakane. Things your teachers haven’t seen fit to tell you.” From the tone of her voice, Arta guessed she meant one teacher in particular.

“Can this wait?” Arta asked. “We’re in the middle of a situation right now, and I’ve been arguing with the council all day and I’m exhausted. I need time to gather my thoughts and to try and get a little rest.”

“A situation?’ Midaia asked. “Yes, that’s one way to put it. I know exactly what ‘situation’ you mean – and it makes our conversation that much more urgent, because it touches on things you need to know. Things about the Empire – and its master. Take a seat; this may take a while.”

“All right,” Arta said warily, sitting on the edge of her bed; Midaia gestured with one hand, red light playing faintly along her fingers, and her chair turned so they were facing one another directly. “Have it your way, then. What is this that’s so important for me to know?”

Midaia folded her hands in front of her face, pale fingers intertwined, and regarded Arta over them with those unsettling, penetrating eyes. She seemed to be trying to decide where to begin; finally, she nodded and drew a breath. “A little more than a year and a half ago,” she said, “just before your troubles with dear Cousin Respen and his merry band of insurgents began, I was conducting an investigation into the origins of the Commander and his assassins. In the process, I sought knowledge on the psychic plane – the realm we touch on when we dream true dreams, among other things – and there I encountered something I never had before. An Adept whose powers dwarfed my own and who seemed oddly determined to protect Imperial secrets. I barely escaped with my sanity – and life – intact.”

“Yes, Pakorus told me about that,” Arta said. Pakorus ast Orlanes had joined Midaia in her search for answers – the same search that had ultimately turned up the truth that the Commander’s mysterious backer had been none other than the Imperial ambassador himself, Quarinis. “He said you thought it was Al’Aymar Alaen at first, but that you changed your mind later.”

“So Pakorus remembered,” Midaia mused. “Good for him. He’s a clever young man and proved surprisingly useful to me. He’s sweet on you, of course – though from what I hear lately, that starship seems to have sailed.” Arta flushed in embarrassment and looked away as Midaia continued. “But no, when we met Alaen face-to-face, I realized the truth. The Emperor’s personal psychic hatchet man is quite capable – he’s as strong as I am and perhaps a hair more skilled, but I believe I could defeat him if I planned it properly beforehand. He wasn’t the overwhelming force I encountered before. No, I realized I had another enemy, one who I didn’t know. But I thought I knew someone who did. So, I sought out our mutual friend Shiran and, miraculously, managed to get some answers from him. Some of it is his story to tell, not mine. But some of it touches on matters that concern us all. Before we begin, tell me – how much do you know about the history of the Empire?”

Arta snorted. “I hope that was a rhetorical question,” she said. “I had tutors, you know, including Shiran – and unlike Karani, I actually paid attention to them most of the time.”

Midaia grinned. “Of course, you did,” she said. “We are blood, after all. Then you know of the great civil war that was fought in the early centuries of Imperial rule, when they had first united all the scattered colonies of humanity under their banner and ended the so-called ‘Dark Age’ that came after the Third Republic’s fall. It was a time of chaos and madness, as the patrician gentes fought each other, the Senate fought the patricians and the Emperor fought the Senate. There weren’t really sides so much as there was a constantly shifting web of alliances and factions. By the end, though, the Imperial Faction was triumphant, and the Empire was reunified with power centered in the person of the Emperor, though still paying lip-service to the idea of the Senate as a democratic body. That structure remains in place today, though the Empire has shrunk far from its height of glory.

“Our story today, however, is less concerned with the war itself and more with two young men, Adepts both, who were born on the eve of that conflict and had their outlooks on life shaped by it in very different ways. One of them you know.”

“Shiran,” Arta breathed. “Of course.” Memories of her dream rose suddenly in her mind. “And was the other named Lucian?”

Midaia looked at her oddly. “As a matter of fact, he was,” she said. “Though he has worn many more names over the centuries. Shiran’s side of the tale I will leave to him to tell you, when he chooses. It is Lucian’s story that concerns us now. He was patrician born, but his gens – his family – were all killed in the early days of the war. Cut adrift, he attached himself to the Emperor’s entourage and became one of his chief strategists – it was with his aid and by his powers in no small part that the Emperor of the time triumphed and restored order to the Empire. In order to prevent such a conflict from arising again, he helped propagate a new religion which held that the Imperial person incarnated a divine will that watched over humanity, making patriotism and loyalty to the throne not just a social obligation but a sacred duty. This became what we now know as the Imperial Cult.

“This, I believe, was where Shiran and Lucian had their falling out; Lucian had come to believe that only rigidly enforced order could ensure humanity’s survival, while Shiran had a perhaps more optimistic view of human nature. And Shiran blamed himself for the conflict and his friend’s rise to power, for reasons that aren’t mine to tell, and sought to dissuade him from his course. Lucian refused his counsel and they parted ways. I don’t know the full story, but I do know that as powerful Adepts, they were both capable of extending their lives, and both did so. I believe that they both were determined not to die until they had proven their particular vision for the future of humanity was superior. And so, they both lived on for centuries, taking different guises but always guiding from the sidelines – at least, until recently.”

Midaia’s eyes glittered. “Decades ago, something changed. The Empire was fractured and weakened and the Emperor, Tibarus Graccus, cared more for drinking himself into oblivion while watching animals tear each other to pieces in the Arena than he did for ruling. Lucian, a priest of the Imperial Cult at the time, grew disgusted and decided the time had come to take matters into his own hands. He organized a coup with a number of like-minded Senators and patricians; Gracchus was killed in his bed, and he who was once Lucian was catapulted into power, ruling directly for the first time in his long life. He rules still. The name he uses now is Verus Licinius.”

“The Emperor,” Arta said dully, slumping where she sat. “He’s the Emperor, isn’t he? The Emperor is an immortal Adept and Shiran’s enemy. As if his legions and his fleets and his Adept cabal weren’t dangerous enough. That’s what I’m dealing with, aren’t I? What we’re all having to deal with.”

Midaia’s gaze was sympathetic. “You’re right,” she said. “But that’s why I came here to warn you. The ancients said that to defeat your enemy, you must first know your enemy. And now you know Licinius for what he truly is. But I can also tell you what he’s not – he may be seven hundred years old, but he is not a god, whatever the Imperial Cult may preach. He was born a man, and whatever he has become, some part of him is still human. That means he’s vulnerable.”

“How so?” Arta asked.

To her surprise, Midaia laughed. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’m not actually omniscient, you know. Neither is Shiran, much as he may pretend otherwise. But Licinius is human, and to be human is to be fallible – I know that much. Somewhere he has cracks, and you just have to find them. But I will give you this warning – he’s strong, Artakane. Stronger than me and you and Shiran put together, at least. Stronger than I believed it was possible for a human Adept to be. I don’t say this to frighten you, but to make you aware of what you face – and because I don’t believe he was always so strong. If he has a weakness, I think you’ll find it there.”

“’I’ll’ find it?” Arta asked. “What about ‘we?’ Aren’t you going to help us?”

“You have your duties to the Kingdom, little sister,” Midaia said, standing. “I have duties elsewhere. I’ll try to help you when I can, but I can’t promise you much. I just wanted to come here tonight to give you the greatest gift I know – the gift of knowledge. Use it well.”

“Other duties?” Arta asked, standing and facing her half-sister. “Other duties to where? Not the Church, surely? I assume they haven’t reversed your excommunication since we last talked.”

Midaia chuckled. “Oh, I assure you the Church and I aren’t on speaking terms and aren’t likely to be any time soon,” she said. “Let’s just say that my obligations deal with matters you don’t know – and are probably better off not knowing. If it may help, you can think of me as an agent of Fate.” Arta frowned, digesting this, wondering if she should press the matter and deciding it likely would do little good.

Midaia was silent for a long moment, studying her face. Finally, she asked in a quiet voice that was quite different from what she’d used before, “Does she make you happy?”

“Yes,” Arta said, smiling. There was no need to specify who ‘she’ was.

“Good,” Midaia said. “If she didn’t, we would have to have words. But for now, good luck, Artakane. I’ll be watching out for you, when I can.” Arta blinked, and when she opened her eyes again, Midaia was gone.


The next morning, Pakorus ast Orlanes stepped into the palace training room to see two figures sparring with each other in the center of the floor. From this angle he couldn’t see their faces behind the clear face plates of their helmets, but he knew that the girl in the blue armor was Arta, and the girl in red was Latharna. He leaned against the wall and watched as their dueling swords, doubtless powered down to the training setting that blunted their edges, flashed against each other; Pakorus was no great swordsman himself but he was familiar enough with the art to appreciate Arta’s classical Dozen Stars style and the way Latharna seemed to fight with reckless abandon while actually being in complete control every moment.

Finally, they came to a standstill and stopped, sheathing their weapons and bowing to one another before removing their helmets. They were both very different in appearance – Arta, dark and classically Dozen Stars, was, according to Pakorus’s father, the spitting image of her mother, the late Queen Aestera; on the other hand, the albino whiteness of Latharna’s skin and boyishly-cut short hair made for a striking contrast against the red of her training outfit. They were both extraordinary young women, and Pakorus was proud to be their friend – and if, privately, he found them both lovely, that wasn’t something he said aloud. After all, they had both shown their attentions lay elsewhere, and a gentleman shouldn’t press the matter.

At least, that’s what Pakorus’s father said; somehow, it didn’t seem to stop either of the girls from noticing. “Well,” Arta said, shaking out her hair and turning towards Pakorus with a grin on her face, “it seems we have an audience this morning. To what do we owe the honor – or could you just not resist watching us both working up a sweat while wearing tight clothing?”

Pakorus fought back a groan and was certain he was blushing ferociously; Arta and Latharna both glanced at each other and shared a quiet laugh, which didn’t help matters. “Ah, no,” he finally managed to say, casting around and deciding the best way to quickly change the subject. “Actually, I was looking for my father. Have you seen him? He wasn’t at his office.”

“He’s probably talking with some of the other council members,” Arta said, her expression suddenly serious. “We have another war meeting coming up this afternoon and I asked him to help me wrangle dukes in the hope that we can actually get something useful done at this one. I’m sure he told you about the situation with the Empire?”

“The basics, yes,” Pakorus said. “Word hasn’t gotten out yet about exactly what happened at yesterday’s council meeting, but enough people saw the Imperial ship arrive and leave that the rumors are flying on the news channels. You’ll probably want to make a statement of some sort before too long just so things don’t get too out of hand – but you probably knew that already.”

“Yes, that’s one of the things we were going to discuss today,” Arta said. “We need to get all the dukes in agreement about our plan of action before we officially announce what happened – I have the border system militias on alert already, but I can’t tell the whole Kingdom we’re about to be at war with the Empire and then have the dukes pulling us all twelve different ways. There’d be panic, and that’s not what we need right now. You’ve been in the Empire lately – more recently than anyone else I know, anyway. Except for Midaia, and good luck getting anything out of her that she doesn’t want to share.”

Pakorus shrugged. “We snuck around a few military bases,” he said, “but it’s not like we were dinner guests on Imperium Primus. We got intelligence on Quarinis’s schemes, but I couldn’t tell you much about what the fleets or the legions are doing. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to my father about. I’m afraid we may have other problems.”

“What do you mean?” Latharna asked. “The Empire seems like enough of a problem to me. Is it the Sakrans again?”

“No,” Pakorus said, snorting, “though I’ve been trying to avoid Darius and his siblings as much as I can since they arrived. This is something else. I got a message on my comm earlier this morning. From Orlanes.” He paused and drew in a deep breath. “It’s from my mother.”

“Your mother?” Arta asked, her voice suddenly concerned and her eyes sympathetic. They’d spoken about their families in the palace gardens once, on the night they’d met, two years and a lifetime ago. Latharna, however, looked shocked.

“Your mother’s alive?” she asked, and then looked abashed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you live with your father and I’d never heard you mention your mother, so I just assumed…” she let her voice trail off.

“Mother lives on Orlanes,” Pakorus said. “She and Father… don’t always get along. Well, actually, that’s an understatement. They’re still married, technically, but I don’t think they’ve spoken six whole words to each other in as many years. They had… an argument, you see. She thought he was spending too much time being regent, and not enough time being a husband and a father – and a duke. They said some things to each other I think they both know were wrong, but they’re both too stubborn to take them back. Mother went home to Orlanes and has mostly been running the duchy while Father’s been here, seeing to the Kingdom. Whenever they have to talk to each other, they usually run messages through me – which isn’t exactly a lot of fun.”

“I’m so sorry, Pakorus,” Latharna said, embarrassment flushing her pale cheeks a brilliant scarlet. “I… I didn’t mean to imply anything, I just assumed…”

“It’s okay,” he said, waving her off. “I’ve gotten used to it, over the years. Anyway, when I woke up this morning, I found I had a message on the comm from the Duchess Artemisia ast Orlanes. I called her back and she told me it was urgent she talk to Father – not have me talk to him, but talk to him herself, though she still wants me to raise the subject with him first. She wouldn’t say why, but she did let slip that the Orlanes home fleet has been in a battle – and come off rather the worse for the wear, apparently.”

“A battle?” Arta asked, suddenly alert. “Against who, the Empire? That doesn’t make sense; Orlanes Duchy doesn’t even border the Empire. Your duchy is on the edge of the galactic rim. If the Empire could hit there, they could hit a half-dozen other targets that are more important, including Carann.”

“I don’t know,” Pakorus admitted. “But that’s why I have to find Father. If Mother’s willing to extend an olive branch now, after all this time – well, the situation must be serious.”

“Arta’s busy, but do you want me to go with you?” Latharna offered. “Give a bit of moral support, anyway.”

Pakorus shook his head. “That’s all right,” he said. “I can manage. Thank you for offering, though. I do appreciate it. Well, if neither of you know where Father is, I suppose I’d best be off.”

“Try the halls near the council chamber,” Arta said. “I imagine some of the other dukes may be there, and if so, he’ll likely be there trying to keep them in line.”

“I’ll do that,” Pakorus said, turning to leave. A sudden thought stopped him. “By the way, Arta,” he said, “I ran into Ariana ast Tashir on my way up here. She told me that if I saw you to tell you that she’d procured two tickets to the opera for this evening and was wondering if you’d be willing to join her. Apparently Faruza and Phoebe is showing, and she thought it might help take your mind off our current troubles.”

Latharna snorted. “Well, she’s certainly persistent, isn’t she?”

“Not very subtle, either,” Arta added, laughing. Faruza and Phoebe was the story of a lady knight who fell in love with the daughter of her House’s greatest enemy, and it had long been a favorite for romantic outings. “Well, if you see the good Duchess you may tell her I must refuse, but I do hope she finds someone with whom to enjoy the show this evening.”

Pakorus chuckled and sketched a bow. “As you wish, my queen,” he said, and then turned again and left the training hall, steeling himself for what was sure to be an uncomfortable conversation.


Arta watched him go, her eyes lingering on his back and down his legs. Pakorus was her friend, and she was involved with someone else, but, well, there was no crime in looking, was there? And he did wear that suit well.

From the corner of her eye she saw Latharna watching Pakorus’s departure as well, and she thought that maybe she wasn’t the only one to have that opinion.


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Chapter Six

Carann, Royal Palace

As Arta had suggested, Pakorus found his father in one of the hallways adjoining the council chamber, deep in discussion with the elderly Duchess Laodamia. He waited for a moment until there was a break in the conversation and then stepped forward. “Pardon me, your grace,” he said, nodding at Laodamia, “but may I borrow my father for a moment? I have a message for him.”

Laodamia looked him up and down and nodded approvingly. “You’ve got a well-spoken lad there, Mardoban,” she said. “Best hear what he has to say. I’ll be waiting for you in the council chamber.” She nodded to them both and then turned away and began to make her way down the hall, her cane tapping on the floor. When she was gone, Mardoban turned to Pakorus.

“What is it, son?” he asked; his tone was curious, but not accusing. He knew Pakorus wouldn’t have interrupted him with one of the other council members if it wasn’t important.

Pakorus drew a breath and let it out again. Best to get this over with quickly. “It’s from Mother,” he said. “Apparently there’s a… situation, back on Orlanes.”

Mardoban raised his eyebrows. “Apparently so,” he said. “It must be serious, if your mother is willing to take it straight to me. Well, we’d better hear it, then.” He led Pakorus to one of the small, unused offices that lined the hall – rooms Pakorus suspected had been built precisely for such discrete conversations - and closed the door behind them. Pakorus walked over to the desk in the room’s center and took a moment to steel himself before placing his comm on its surface and keying it on. A moment later, a small holo appeared floating above it, depicting an elegant woman in her middle years. Her eyes fell on the duke. “Mardoban,” she said, her tone cool.

“Artemisia,” Mardoban replied. “This is an unexpected pleasure. What is the occasion?”

“Unexpected, maybe,” Artemisia said. “But I think we both know that this isn’t a social call. I wouldn’t have dreamed of interrupting your ever-so-important work on Carann if it weren’t urgent.”

Mardoban sighed. “That’s about what I thought,” he said. “You always did insist that you didn’t require my aid to run Orlanes Duchy in any capacity. And you never call me unless it’s to discuss business.”

“Your duties to the Kingdom as Regent were well and good,” Artemisia said, “and you did keep the Dozen Stars from falling entirely apart, for which I will credit you. But in the process, you seem to have forgotten that you are a duke with your own holdings to worry about; it’s fortunate I was able to step in during you absence and that the Orlanes Assembly is at least somewhat competent. Our son knows his duty to his Duchy, at least,” she added, nodding towards Pakorus who did his best to shrink back and look inconspicuous without making it obvious that’s what he was doing. “I knew he would listen to me, and that if he brought it to you, you would listen too.”

“Can we please stop arguing about things we’ve already discussed a hundred times?” Mardoban asked. “I have a council meeting coming up very soon, and I need to be there. What is happening in Orlanes?”

“And clearly the council comes first, as always,” Artemisia said in an exasperated tone. “Why would I ever think otherwise? But in this case, it’s lucky – you can tell them what I’m about to tell you.” She drew a long breath before continuing. “Over the past few weeks, merchant vessels leaving Orlanes and neighboring planets started disappearing en route. At first, we thought it was pirates – some remnant of the Commander’s fleet that you missed, maybe. So, I got the guilds to agree to run their ships with a Defense Force escort. They were attacked and managed to escape… barely.”

“Attacked by who? The Empire? Surely not!” Mardoban said. “Orlanes Duchy is on the other side of the Kingdom from the Imperial border!”

“Not the Empire, Mardoban,” Artemisia said, her eyes haunted. “The captain of one of the Defense Force Equestrians took footage of the battle. This was the ship that led the attack.” Artemisia’s image vanished from above the comm, and a holo of a warship replaced it – but this was no warship that had ever been fielded by any military, guild or pirate fleet in the Dozen Stars, and neither was it a design used in the Empire. It looked less like a ship, truly, than it did some shelled deep-sea creature, its hull sweeping back from the prow in curving segments, save where long spikes jutted outward. The ship was painted solid black, save where what appeared to be words had been written along its sides – words in no language any human had ever devised.

Pakorus had seen images of such warships before, but he’d never seen one in person. Beside him, his father drew in a deep, shocked breath. He had faced this enemy before, decades ago before Pakorus was born.

“Lord be with us,” Mardoban breathed. “That’s a Csarag raider.”

“Indeed,” Artemisia said, her image returning. “Mardoban, the Csarag have returned. We don’t know how many they are in total, lurking in the darkness between systems, but it was enough to take on a squadron of the Orlanes Defense Force fleet and win. It may just be an especially large party of marauders… or it may be more than that.”

Pakorus’s breath caught; he hadn’t been born yet when the Csarag had invaded the Dozen Stars, but he knew his history well enough. It had taken two years of bloody chaos before they’d been forced back to their territory on the galactic rim; a number of the Kingdom’s brightest stars had made their names in that war including then-Princess Aestera and the future dukes Mardoban and Naudar, but while his father was a veteran of that war, he rarely spoke of it. He said it was something better off forgotten.

And now the Csarag had returned. Pakorus shook his head. “Why now?” he asked out loud. “Could they be working with the Empire? Forcing us to fight on two fronts?”

Mardoban and Artemisia exchanged a worried look. “It’s possible, son,” Mardoban said slowly. “I doubt it, though. The Empire has no territory that borders the Csarag’s – nation? Kingdom? Empire? We were never quite sure what sort of government they had on their homeworlds – and I don’t think they could get in contact with each other without our knowing about it. But even if they could, so far as we know, no human being has ever managed to find common ground with the Csarag. When they attacked the Kingdom, they never gave us a reason, never issued any demands. They didn’t even try to hold territory. They just appeared in our systems and started killing. Maybe that’s all they wanted all along.”

“Now do you see why we need help?” Artemisia asked. “And why we need the council? The Csarag haven’t tried to hit Orlanes yet; maybe they don’t have the strength for that. If so, we’re lucky. But maybe they’re waiting for reinforcements. Or maybe they have some other goal – they’re aliens, who knows how their minds work? But if there are more of them out there – if this is another full-scale invasion and not just an ambitious raiding party – then we need reinforcements. Mardoban, Orlanes is strong, and I’m proud of it – but our Duchy can’t fight an entire fleet of Csarag marauders on our own.”

“Dammit,” Mardoban muttered angrily. “Whether the Csarag are working with the Empire or not to deliberately split our forces, they’re doing a good job of it. I don’t know how much we’ll be able to spare from our defenses against the Empire’s attack, but I promise you, Artemisia, I’ll bring you as much relief as I can.”

The edge of Artemisia’s mouth quirked. “Well, I suppose that’s more than I had any right to expect,” she muttered. “Damnable timing, though. Maybe they are working together after all.”

“Father,” Pakorus said, leaning in, “I know you were at the Battle of Kern, where the Csarag were defeated last time. How did you beat them, anyway? The history books I read at the Academy were always vague.”

Mardoban frowned, his eyes darkening at old, unpleasant memories. “The Csarag Overlord himself was there,” he said quietly. “He’d come to watch the Kingdom’s forces broken before him. But we had a plan. Naudar and I led our squadrons on a charge straight for his flagship – Lord, it was a nightmare of a thing, all spikes and cruel edges – and we cleared a path so an elite team of knights and royal guards could board it. They managed to kill the Overlord and cripple his ship; without his leadership, the Csarag fragmented. They’re a fractious, chaotic people without a strong personality to hold them together.” He chuckled bitterly. “They’re a bit like us in that way. Aestera herself led that strike force – she told me she could bear to send good men and women into that monstrous ship without being there with them. But she never told me what happened inside, except that they won.”

Artemisia’s lips pursed in disapproval at the mention of Queen Aestera’s name, but when she finally spoke, she didn’t mention her. “Well, maybe the Csarag have finally crowned a new Overlord and that’s why they’ve come back,” she said. “But at least if we can figure out where their command ship is, we might be able to bring it down and stop them in their tracks.” She sighed. “I suppose for now, it’s all we can do. Go to your council meeting, Mardoban, and tell them what’s happening on Orlanes. Come through for us.”

“I will,” Mardoban said softly, but by the time he’d finished speaking, Artemisia’s holo was already gone.


Darius walked down the long, austere hallway of the prison level deep beneath the palace, head held high as he stared determinedly ahead. This was the first time he had been down here on this particular visit to Carann, and he was determined not to show uncertainty to the man he had come to see, especially not when he had come here to try and get his help. And besides, though he was loath to admit it, there was a part of him that still desired that man’s approval.

Finally, he arrived at his destination – a cell near the end of the hallway. Through the shimmer of the forcefield that presented anyone from entering or leaving, Darius could see that the room was pleasantly enough appointed, if small and cramped – a prison fit for a duke, even if that duke had disgraced himself by committing treason. The cell’s occupant, a grey-haired and mustached man in his late fifties, lay on the cell’s bed with his hands folded behind his head, starting up at the ceiling. If he had heard Darius approach, he gave no acknowledgment of that fact. Finally, the young duke cleared his throat loudly and then spoke a single sentence. “Hell, Father.”

The former Duke Naudar ast Sakran, deposed following his failed rebellion and now awaiting trial for treason and insurrection, gave an exaggerated yawn and sat up on his bed. “Oh, hello, Darius,” he said. “I’m afraid I didn’t see you there. I’m simply so busy these days, it’s hard to keep track of things.”

“I don’t have time for your games today, Father,” Darius said, gritting his teeth. “I need to talk to you, and we need to do it now. I have a council meeting to get to, and I’ll probably be running late after this little detour as it is.”

“Well, at least the mighty Duke ast Sakran can still make time to visit his poor father in his humble abode,” Naudar said. “A pity your siblings weren’t able to show the same courtesy, but then, such is life. And how are Tariti and Galen these days, anyway? I’d have liked to have seen them too.”

“This isn’t a social call, Father,” Darius told him. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need information – information you probably have stored in that mind of yours, or at least know how to get.”

“Ah,” Naudar said, sudden understanding growing in his expression. “It’s finally happened, hasn’t it?”

“It has,” Darius said, sighing. “Yesterday, we received a messenger from the Empire – Publius Vedrans Quarinis himself, over holo. They issued demands they knew we would never meet, and then when we refused them, they declared war on us. The Dozen Stars stands ready to face an Imperial invasion.”

“I thought my guards seemed rather tense when they brought me my breakfast this morning,” Naudar mused. “I suppose that explains why. So, the Empire prepares for war, as I knew they would. I’m surprised young Artakane hasn’t been down here to see me yet.”

“I thought you might respond better to a family visit,” Darius said. “I assume Artakane thought so as well, considering that the guards seemed to be expecting me.”

“Well, the girl isn’t stupid, I’ll give her that,” Naudar said, frowning. “A pity that she’s the cause of all this, in a way. Our contact in the Empire was always insistent that no matter what else happened, the girl had to lose her throne and die. That was the primary reason for his interest in the Dozen Stars. Had I been permitted to take the throne, none of this would have happened. A pity.”

“Your ‘contact?’” Darius asked. “Call him Quarinis; we both know you knew who he really was.”

“I suspected,” Naudar said. “That isn’t the same as knowing for sure. There are only so many people in the galaxy who have pockets deep enough to make a significant improvement over the combined resources of three duchies; that pointed to the Empire. And there are only so many Imperial patricians who make a habit of meddling in Dozen Stars politics. It was a short list.”

“In any case, do you really think that your taking the throne would have stopped the Empire from going to war?” Darius asked. “The Empire is ravenous, desperate to regain its former glory, and Verus Licinius is an ambitious man and a strong emperor. Even with Artakane dead, I doubt he’d have left us in peace. And that’s assuming you did manage to take the throne. What if Respen had managed to kill you instead of the other way around? Your grand plans would have come to nothing then, and the Dozen Stars would be in the hands of a maniac!”

Naudar waved a hand dismissively. “Come now,” he said. “Do you really have so low an opinion of me as that, boy? I could have outwitted Respen any day. And the possibility of war with the Empire would have been better than what we have now, when war has become a certainty. But I don’t think you came here to discuss past sins and might-have-beens. What do you want to know?”

Darius rested a hand on the door frame beside the force field and leaned in close. “I know that you never went into business with anyone without learning all you could about them,” he said. “And I know that you claimed to still have plans in place in case the Empire double-crossed you. I need that information, Father. And I need it now.”

“Interesting,” Naudar said. “You need this information because you think it will save the Dozen Stars – a kingdom which, at the moment, is holding me prisoner for treason, and may well execute me or sentence me to life in this hole once I am tried. I find that I am not currently overflowing with generosity towards the Dozen Stars.”

“You’re in this ‘hole’ because of your own actions, and you know it,” Darius said, rather more harshly than he’d intended; Naudar merely shrugged, as if from his current position that didn’t really matter overly much. “I’m the one who’s trying to fix the mess you helped create. But I don’t particularly think you want to see the Dozen Stars burn, even if it is from your prison cell. I always knew you were ambitious, but I also thought you were at least a patriot where it counted.”

“Perhaps I am, at that,” Naudar said. “But I won’t offer my help for nothing, and not as a prisoner. I want a pardon.”

“You know I can’t promise you that,” Darius said. “Your crime was against the Crown, not Sakran Duchy, so I don’t have the authority to pardon you. Only Artakane does. And somehow I don’t think she’s liable to feel very kindly disposed towards you.”

“In that case, we have a problem,” Naudar said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. “Though it occurs to me that someone with influence – a member of the council of dukes, say, perhaps the duke of one of the most powerful and influential of the twelve duchies – might be able to put in a good word on my behalf with Her Most August Majesty. That someone – should such a person be found – might be able to say that you were right, that I never do go into business with someone without learning as many of their dirty secrets as I can. That I can provide you with information regarding the composition of the Imperial fleet, their likely avenue of attack, and information on the identity and character of the man who will likely be assigned to lead it. Such a person might, even, be able to say that I have managed to make contact with a man highly placed in the Imperial hierarchy and found him amenable to a peaceable relationship with the Dozen Stars, should the ambitions of the current leadership prove… unfeasible to enact. Do you think that such a person might be able to prevail upon the Queen to show mercy to an old man who has put his ambitions behind him?”

Darius snorted. “I doubt you’ll ever put your ambitions entirely behind you,” he said. “But I get your meaning; as it so happens, I am exactly the sort of person you describe.” His gaze hardened. “But tell me – was even half of what you just implied to me true?”

“All of it was,” Naudar said. “I swear it on my life, on the Lord’s name, and by the proud name of House ast Sakran.” Darius scanned his father’s eyes but could see no dishonesty there – and while Naudar had never been a devout man, he had always been one to take pride in his house’s heritage and plan for its future. He didn’t think that was an oath he would have sworn lightly.

“I can’t promise you anything,” he finally said. “The decision isn’t mine, and if Artakane says no, I’m not breaking you out of here. But I will pass on your message to her and see what she says.”

“That’s all I can hope for,” Naudar said, but Darius couldn’t mistake the fact that his gaze was brighter now, and more intense. “Go to your council meeting then and do pass my regards to your brother and sister. And if the Queen is willing to listen to reason, let her know that I’ll be here, waiting.”


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Chapter Seven

Imperium Primus, Orbital Stardock

Cassius Decimus, high admiral of the Imperial Navy and strong right hand of His August Majesty, Verus Licinius, strode into the command center with posture rigid and hands folded behind his back. His guards, marines in the sleek armor of the legions with blast rifles held at the ready, took up their positions beside the door while the admiral himself stepped forward into the center of the room. All around him, officers leapt from their workstations and snapped to salute with fists over their hearts; Decimus made no obvious response, regarding them impassively. It was good to make them sweat for a while, he thought, to remind them that his every word and gesture was their law. Discipline and order; the Empire was built on these things. Soon it would be time to remind the rest of humanity of that simple fact.

Finally, he nodded. “At ease,” he said, permitting the officers to return to their seats. He turned to face the only one who remained standing, a sharp-featured woman in her early thirties whose uniform marked her as holding a rank only slightly inferior to Decimus’s own. She was young for such a position, but she was ambitious, capable, and ruthless; in the Empire, those qualities could carry one far. “Vice-Admiral,” Decimus snapped. “Report. What is our current status?”

Veradis Quintius, commander of the military shipyards that orbited Imperium Primus and, for the moment, Decimus’s second-in-command, saluted sharply. “The work goes well, my lord,” she said. “The damage our ships sustained at Bahrina has been repaired; the armada once again stands at full strength.”

“Excellent,” Decimus said, smiling tightly. “I am pleased with your efficiency, Vice-Admiral, and the Emperor will be pleased as well when I report your progress to him. He has longed for this war for two decades; we shall deliver it to him – and deliver him victory.” He paused for a long moment. “And what of the… modifications we spoke of earlier? Do they proceed?” 

“They do, my lord,” Quintius said, though her voice betrayed her doubts. “The weapons are not yet operational, but they are being installed as we speak. However, begging the admiral’s pardon, I do not see the need. I have studied the military capabilities of the Dozen Stars in detail, and by my estimation, the armada as it stands is more than capable of subduing it. These upstarts do not have the strength of the Alaelam Alliance to oppose us.”

“Your analysis is not incorrect, Vice-Admiral,” Decimus said. “But you miss a number of crucial facts. For one, to war with the Dozen Stars is to war with Realtran; their two nations’ fates have been entwined from the beginning, and they will stand or fall together. We face not one foe, but two – and that is not counting the Alaelam. They were defeated but not destroyed. I for one doubt we have seen the last of them, and they will strike where we least expect it. But, more importantly, we do as our Emperor wills – and what he wills is that the Dozen Stars be not simply defeated but crushed utterly, to serve as an example to all others who would dare defy his rule. It was by blood that this Empire was built until it encompassed all the stars; it is by blood that we shall rebuild it. Do you understand me, Vice-Admiral?”

“Of course, my lord,” Quintius said, saluting again. “Your will be done.”

“Not my will, Vice-Admiral,” Decimus said quietly. “The Emperor’s will; I am merely his instrument. Do not ever forget that.” Turning away from Quintius, he walked across the room to the viewport that dominated the far wall and stared out into the blackness of space. Imperium Primus hung below them, a great orb that from this distance was mostly of silver, save for the occasional patches of blue or green. Decimus’s gaze, however, was drawn away from the world of his birth, the throneworld of what he intended to see made once again the United Empire of Humankind in truth as well as in name, and up to the shipyards that curved away out of sight, a great semicircular ring of metal.

Warships were docked along its length, having their repairs completed and the modifications which the Emperor had demanded installed. Only the closest of these was near enough that Decimus could make out its features, but his chest swelled with pride at the sight. Spear of Caelus was his personal command, the flagship of the mighty Imperial armada; it was a Deceres-class battle cruiser, named for a type of seagoing warship from Lost Terra, and was more than twice the size of any of the Equestrian battleships so favored by the Dozen Stars. Decimus could say with pride that the Spear had never been defeated in battle while he commanded her.

Which was not to say that there was not room for the mighty vessel to be improved. Even from this distance, Decimus fancied he could see the sparks flickering along the hull where the service mechs worked, installing the new cannons that had been built according to the Emperor’s specifications. Decimus didn’t know where his sovereign had gotten the designs; Verus Licinius was many things, but he was not, so far as the admiral knew, an engineer. Some of the scientists who had worked with the plans thought the style was old, and yet seemed more advanced than anything the Empire fielded today; perhaps they had been scavenged from the fall of the Third Republic and kept hidden by the Empire’s archivists until they were needed. The engineers assured Decimus, however, that the new cannons would have a greatly increased range and could punch through all but the strongest shields – and that when they impacted, they would emit an energy pulse that could incapacitate the abilities of even the strongest Adept, so long as they were nearby.

Decimus frowned at the thought; this particular effect of the weapons made him wonder if the designs were not from the Third Republic at all, but had been provided by the Alaelam renegade, Al’Aymar Alaen. The admiral revered Verus Licinius, but he could not say the same for the Emperor’s counselor; he did not trust Alaelam, and he did not trust turncoats or Adepts, and Alaen was all three of those unfortunate things. Not for Cassius Decimus were the mutterings of mystics or the schemes of traitors; he put his faith in strategy, in the strength of arms, and in the might of the Empire. He knew that many of the Imperial elite paid lip-service to the Imperial Cult while quietly scoffing at it behind closed doors, but Decimus was a believer; he had been one ever since he had graduated from the officers’ schola and Licinius himself, then newly-crowned, had come to speak at the ceremony. Even then, he had realized that this man truly was the anointed ruler of all humanity – and that it was Decimus’s destiny to lead the conquering fleet that would make that rule a reality. Though his family was obscure, not one of the great and influential patrician gentes, this sense of implacable purpose had carried Decimus far and, ultimately, into the highest seats of power.

Now, it would carry him to victory over the Dozen Stars, and to the realization of the destiny he had foreseen so long ago.

“You have done well,” he finally said, turning away from the viewport and back to Vice-Admiral Quintius. “I must leave shortly and return to the planet; the Emperor will attend the games this afternoon and expects me to be there with him. Complete our preparations, Vice-Admiral. For soon, our fleet must be ready to launch – to the Dozen Stars, to war, and to victory.”

“Understood, my lord,” Quintius said, saluting again; the cold light in her eyes mirrored that which Decimus knew must surely be in his own.


The thunderous noise of the arena greeted Publius Vedrans Quarinis as he stepped into the Emperor’s private box. Even as high in the stands as they were, in a box protected from the press of the crowds by the faint shimmer of a forcefield, the sheer immensity of the great stadium could be overwhelming, and today it was full to the brim. Always a popular national pastime, today the arena was to host the last games before the armada was launched and the Empire went to war with the Dozen Stars. Everyone who could manage to get tickets were here, and most of those who couldn’t were probably watching on holo.

Quarinis stepped forward until he reached the front row of seats, pausing briefly to incline his head in a gesture of respect to the towering praetorians who stood guard at the box’s corners. The Emperor was already there, of course; Licinius sat in the center of the front row, hands folded in front of him as he pensively regarded the arena floor far below, waiting for the sport to begin. Admiral Decimus, recently arrived from orbit, sat at his right hand, immaculate as ever in his stiff uniform; as usual, his thin face was unsmiling, but his eyes were almost feverishly bright, as if the fervor behind them was just waiting to be unleashed. Quarinis didn’t much care for Decimus, but he respected the man’s skills at his chosen profession. They exchanged a nod as he took his seat on the admiral’s other side. Glancing over, he saw that Al’Aymar Alaen was seated at the Emperor’s left. As ever, his expression was unreadable behind his heavy mask and robes, but his posture gave an unmistakable sense of disapproval. Well, that was nothing new; as a member of the Emperor’s entourage, Alaen was often required to attend the arena whenever Licinius did, but he made no secret of the fact that he considered it barbaric.

Well, Quarinis didn’t suppose he could blame him for that; he had little appetite for bloodshed for its own sake, and generally found the arena tedious at best, but he had learned to tolerate it. A patrician of his rank was expected to follow the games and be able to converse intelligently about them, and so Quarinis did. Adjusting his position in his seat, he leaned forward to get a better look at the arena floor far below them. It could be modified to simulate a variety of different terrains to offer distinct challenges or even facilitate the reenactment of famous historical battles, but today it was in one of its default configurations, an open, sandy plain. Well, that made it less likely any of today’s matches would be particularly interesting, but Quarinis could endure it for a few hours…

He was shaken from his thoughts suddenly as someone slapped him heartily on the back. “Publius, old boy!” a deep, jovial voice boomed. “Fancy seeing you here, eh?”

Quarinis knew that voice almost as well as he knew his own. Sighing, he straightened up and turned to face the speaker. “Tertius,” he said flatly. “I wasn’t aware you’d be joining us today. I trust you are well, brother?”

Tertius Quarinis laughed. He was a big man, as tall as his younger brother but much broader in the shoulders – not to mention broad across the stomach, Quarinis noted; broader than he had been last time they’d spoken. It seemed life on Imperium Primus agreed with Tertius. A year Publius’s senior, Tertius had succeeded to Gens Quarinis’s senate seat after their father had retired and held it ever since – he wore his white senatorial toga with aplomb. Though the family resemblance was there if one searched for it, Tertius’s face was round rather than severe, and though his hair, like his brother’s, had gone white, he also wore a short, neatly trimmed goatee. Quarinis frowned at that; in the Dozen Stars most men wore some form of facial hair, but in the Empire, it was generally considered crass and most men, especially patricians, went clean-shaven. Not that Senator Tertius Quarinis had ever allowed being considered crass to stop him from doing anything.

“Life’s been treating me well enough these days,” Tertius said, slapping his belly as if to underscore that point. “Can’t believe His Majesty managed to get you back out here after all those years in the Dozen Stars! Did I hear you managed to kill off their new queen already? Or was that the old one? I can never keep track!” He threw back his head and laughed again. Quarinis frowned at him and massaged his temple. This was going to be a very long afternoon after all.

“Queen Artakane was alive and well last I heard,” he said. “And I implore you, brother, please refrain from announcing state secrets in the middle of a public place. It sets a bad precedent.”

“Lighten up, Publius!” Tertius said, taking the empty seat on his brother’s right; as one of the longest-serving and best-connected members of the senate, his rank entitled him to certain privileges – such as sitting in the Emperor’s box at the arena. “You’re always so serious – you need to relax a little. Here, have some wine!” Tertius waved to a serving mech and it floated over; it was carrying a tray laden with a large bottle, several glasses, and a selection of snacks.

“No thank you, Tertius,” Quarinis said. “But feel free to have some yourself; don’t hold back on my account.” If Tertius was eating or drinking, he’d be less likely to be talking, which would in turn be a great relief to his brother’s state of mind. Quarinis knew full well that, despite appearances, Tertius was no fool – a man didn’t last as long as he had in the senate if he was. That said, Tertius Quarinis had to be taken in small doses and at particular times, and for the moment, Publius wasn’t in the mood.

Tertius shrugged and gestured for the mech to pour him a glass of the wine; as he was doing so, Verus Licinius suddenly stood and raised his hand; the crowds across the arena fell silent as a towering holo of the Emperor was projected above the center of the stadium. “My people,” he declared. “Today, we stand upon the brink of destiny. One enemy has been crushed; soon, another shall be brought to heel. A new age is dawning – and it shall be our age! We go once again to war, and we shall be victorious! But for today – let the games begin!”

A thunderous roar of applause greeted the Emperor’s words; as Licinius took his seat again, carefully hidden doors on either side of the arena floor opened and two massive mechs rumbled onto the field. One floated above the ground, a gleaming metal sphere that trailed a dozen twisting arms below it like some monstrous mechanical jellyfish; the other was heavily plated with armor and huddled close to the ground on a pair of tracks but bristled with weapons. Quarinis leaned forward, interested now. Some people had little interest in battles between mechs, feeling that they lacked the passion and human element of a duel of gladiators, but Quarinis had always preferred them. The battle wasn’t really between the mechs, he understood, but between the engineers who designed and outfitted them. What weaponry and clever technological trickery would they use to try and anticipate and counter their enemy’s moves? To Quarinis’s mind, there was an artistry in that which living gladiators often lacked.

After a lengthy struggle, the tentacled mech prevailed, managing to take apart the tracked mech’s armor with careful applications of fusion cutters on the ends of its arms and then disabling its internal motor. After that, another bout began, and then another, and another, mechs and beasts and gladiators fighting one another for glory, exorbitant prize money, and the entertainment of the masses. Contrary to the stereotypes in the Dozen Stars and elsewhere, while mechs were destroyed and animals killed, human gladiators rarely perished – a good gladiator was expensive to train and equip, whether slave or free, and their sponsors and masters were loath to throw such an investment away. But then, there were always times when accidents did happen, and when one downed gladiator was taken from the field, heavily bleeding from an accidental wound, the cheering of the crowd was louder than at any other point in the day.

Finally, the games drew to close, and the last event of the day began. The detritus from the last match was cleared away and six praetorians, their armored chassis painted a deep black, marched into the center of the arena; each of them held a giant electro-axe in one hand, and in the other clutched the bound and struggling form of a man or woman. Holos flashed the faces of each of the prisoners across the stands and their captions described what each of them had been found guilty of. These six had been captured together; their crime was sedition and plotting to undermine the Imperial throne.

The holocams turned back towards the Emperor’s box, and suddenly Licinius’s image was once again projected across the arena. Those who had committed crimes against the state were often executed at games such as these, but the Emperor reserved the right to pardon the accused at any point. Often, he did so in a demonstration of his mercy and benevolence, though those who were not properly appreciative of such a gesture were liable to find themselves spared death only to be thrown back into prison for the remainder of their lives. Today, however, Quarinis doubted any such mercy would be forthcoming.

He was correct. Licinius leaned forward, seeming to study the prisoners for a long moment, though he had no doubt already made up his mind. Then, silently, he raised his right hand and made a fist with the thumb pointed down.

Beside Quarinis, Tertius winced sympathetically and closed his eyes. The former ambassador, however, did not look away as the praetorians cast the prisoners, some sobbing, some defiant, to the ground in front of them and raised their axes. The weapons flared to life as they were energized, and then they came down. Six traitorous heads were struck from their shoulders, to the roared approval of the crowd.

Quarinis didn’t look away, but from the corner of his eye, he thought he could saw Al’Aymar Alaen quietly rise to his feet and slip out of the box, and a part of him wondered what that might mean.


It was not disgust at the deaths that inspired Alaen’s departure. He disdained the Imperial brutality – not least because, centuries ago, the great Matari had died in such a fashion, in an arena much like this one – but he had long since grown accustomed to it. He would pay any price in blood to take back what was rightfully his; only then would he turn his attentions to ensuring that his erstwhile allies got the justice they deserved.

No, throughout the games, he had felt a prickling awareness growing on his mind, a sense of being watched. He knew what it meant – another Adept was attempting to spy on him, or someone nearby, likely the Emperor himself. He didn’t know if Licinius had noticed; the Emperor had seemed so intent on the executions below that he might well not have. But Alaen did, and he suspected that this must be the same person his students had warned him of.

Ducking into a passage behind the Emperor’s box, where it was currently empty and quiet, he focused his will, attempting to seize upon the questing senses of the intruding Adept and determine just who they might be. For a moment, he thought he had them – and then they slipped away, leaving behind nothing but a faint sensation that called to mind the distant sound of mocking laughter. Alaen frowned behind his mask. Yes, they were skilled, whoever they might be. And Amaru was right – the feeling of this new Adept’s mind was Alaelam. Not Midaia ast Carann, then, or the so-called “Professor”, Shiran. Certainly not the young queen, Artakane. No, this was someone from the Alliance – not someone Alaen knew, but then, he had been gone for decades. The Conclave had new members now, men and women he’d never met face to face. Perhaps this was one.

In any case, he was watching for them now. And when they showed themselves again, he would have them. And then he would learn just who they were, and what their interest portended.


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Chapter Eight

Carann, Royal Palace

A holographic map hovered in the center of the council chamber, depicting the Dozen Stars/Imperial border; the former side was illuminated in blue, and the latter in violet. Glowing dots with text floating above them signified inhabited star systems, while flashing arrows indicated the likely paths the Empire’s armada would take as it advanced. The map rotated slowly in midair, and Duke Mardoban stood beside it.

“Here you can see we have calculated the most likely course of attack the Empire’s forces will make,” the former regent was saying. “Tashir Duchy shares the longest border with the Empire of any duchy in the Kingdom; of the dozen likeliest scenarios for the invasion our simulators have played out, ten of them will strike at this Duchy first, with the goal of taking Tashir itself as a staging ground for pressing further into the Dozen Stars. From there, they will be able to threaten several of our other worlds, including Aurann, Kern, and Carann itself.”

Arta watched Digran Tassis lean forward, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “All warfare is based on deception; my people learned that fighting Respen on Aurann. If Tashir is the most obvious target, then won’t that make whoever is in command of the Empire’s armada more likely to avoid it and hit elsewhere, for the element of surprise?”

“It’s possible,” Mardoban said, “but I think it’s unlikely, for several reasons. Tashir is squarely in the invasion’s path, and though its defenses are not as strong as those at Sakran, Orlanes or Carann, they’re strong enough. The armada would have to go out of its way to cut around Tashir to hit another duchy in force, and that will make it harder for them to maintain supply lines and communication back home. And it would leave Tashir itself as a knife pointed at their back. No, I believe that if the Empire seriously intends to capture our Kingdom, they will have to take Tashir first.”

“Besides, Digran,” Kallistrae put in, “remember that when you were fighting Respen, you were a guerilla, using trickery and clever tactics against a more powerful foe. But here, the Empire is the more powerful foe. I’m familiar with the reputation of Admiral Decimus, the man who’s in charge of the Imperial armada and will likely lead the attack on the Dozen Stars; he’s intelligent but brutal. If he has a hammer – and he does – he’ll use it. And that hammer will fall on Tashir.”

Across the chamber, Ariana paled at that comment, and the other dukes raised their voices in a chaotic hubbub. Arta rubbed her temple, did a quick breathing exercise to calm her nerves and raised a hand for silence. “Ladies and gentlemen!” she declared. “Enough! Tashir will not fall if I have any say in the matter, but we need calm and order, not shouting! Tell me, Duke Mardoban, Duchess Kallistrae – what do you recommend?”

Ariana caught Arta’s eye as the queen sank back into her throne and smiled gratefully, while the two council members so addressed – both seasoned commanders – nodded at one another. “Our primary goal must be to reinforce the defenses at Tashir,” Mardoban said. “As it is the most likely target, but not the only possible target, we must also reinforce Aurann and Kern, which also stand in the potential invasion corridor. The Empire is strong but not invincible; if we can bleed them at our borders, we can weaken them enough to make it impossible for them to take Carann; Lord willing, this will be enough to drive Verus Licinius to the negotiating table rather than risk further embarrassment.”

“And what if it doesn’t?” Duke Menandrus demanded angrily. “What if Licinius doesn’t care how many lives he spends so long as he gets what he wants? Where will your pretty words be then, Mardoban? When my duchy is in flames? When Tashir is?”

“Need I remind you, Menandrus,” Mardoban said calmly, “that Orlanes has not escaped this war? My home is under threat as well – a rather more immediate threat than yours.”

“Yes, what of Orlanes?” demanded Vashata. “Mardoban, you say the Csarag have returned after all these years. What if they’re back in force? Are we to fight a war on two fronts?”

“If they are, we may not have a choice,” said Darius. “Unless you’d rather sell your people back into slavery in the Empire – or hurl them onto the tender mercy of Csarag razor-staves.” That reminder of what was at stake quieted the room, every council member mulling over the implications of Darius’s words.

“Enough, all of you!” Arta said, standing. “This is not a time for arguing, but action. Last night, I had my staff draft an official statement condemning this act of Imperial aggression and calling on the Dozen Stars to stand as one. You may read it on your computer screens. It already bears my signature and awaits yours; in the interest of unity, I call for this council to vote to adopt it. But you will see it will require us to act for the duration of this crisis as one nation, not twelve duchies at one another’s throats.”

“And who will command our united forces?” Menandrus asked. “You?”

That the council wasn’t rejecting the proposal out of hand was a sign of just how desperate the situation seemed. Arta smiled coolly. “Not I,” she said. “Though I am your queen, you know I am young and have little experience of military command. For the supreme commander of our united forces, a nominate a man we all know, who has experience in both political and military leadership – Duke Mardoban ast Orlanes. All in favor?”

If it had been anyone else, Arta thought that even in this desperate situation, the motion would have failed. But Mardoban was respected and had a long history of service; Darius and Kallistrae’s hands immediately followed Arta’s into the air, then Laodamia’s and Vashata’s, and Ariana, no doubt desperate for someone who could send aid to her duchy, and one by one the others’ followed. Menandrus was last, looking sullen but clearly not wanting to be in the position of the last holdout.

Arta smiled. “Well, that settles things a bit,” she said, though by now she knew the council well enough to understand that this would hardly mean then end of arguments or jockeying for position. “Supreme Commander Mardoban, I believe you have the floor.”

“Indeed,” Mardoban said, stepping forward once again. “Our first step shall be sending forces to reinforce the local defenses at Tashir, Kern and Aurann duchies; we shall also need to send a fact-finding mission to Orlanes, to determine the true extent and nature of the Csarag threat and whether or not there is any connection between their invasion and the Empire’s…”


“Well, that went better than I thought it would,” Karani said as she, Arta and Latharna left the council chamber.

Arta snorted. “None of them want to fight the Empire alone, for all their bluster,” she said. “And the Csarag scare them too. I’ll have to thank Darius later for reminding everyone just what is at stake.” Karani rolled her eyes at that; Arta ignored her and turned to Latharna. “If I could ask you a favor – could you go and visit Ambassador Preas for me and see if she can set up a call with King Luagh or the Realtran Prime Minister? No matter what Mardoban says, we can’t defeat the Empire by ourselves. We need Realtran.”

Latharna looked uncertain, but she straightened up and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do, Arta,” she said. “But I think the ambassador should be willing to hear you out. In Realtran we have no love for the Empire either.”

“Thank you, Latharna,” Arta said, taking the other young woman’s hands in hers and resisting the urge to kiss her right there in public. Apparently Latharna was thinking of something alone those same lines, from how her cheeks reddened; decorum finally won out, and they both coughed and looked away. Off to the side, Karani rolled her eyes again.

“Well,” Arta said, straightening. “That’s the easy part out of the way. Now for the hard part – I have to go talk to the press, and somehow break the news that we’re at war.”

“Your Majesty!” a male voice suddenly called, and Arta turned to see Darius ast Sakran walking towards them, his sister Tariti trailing behind him like a shadow. “We need to speak.”

“What do you want, Sakran?” Karani asked in a cold voice, but Arta raised a hand for quiet.

“I’ll admit I’m curious as to why you didn’t say this in the council chamber earlier,” she said, locking eyes with the young duke. A young duke who had, all too recently, been her enemy.

“Because some of this is… rather sensitive,” Darius said; leaning close, he gave a hurried account of his conversation with his father. Arta stepped back, her eyes wide.

“Can Naudar be serious?” she demanded. “A pardon, after everything he did? After he brought war to the Kingdom and nearly inflicted Respen on us all in the name of his own ambition? Why should I listen to a word out of his mouth?”

“I know you don’t trust my father,” Darius said. “I wouldn’t either, in your position. But, well, I feel like he was being sincere. Well, as sincere as he ever is, anyway. And if there’s even a chance he has the information he claims he has, can you risk not hearing him out?”

“I’ll consider it,” Arta said slowly. “Is that all?” Her gaze slid from Darius’s face to his sister’s, but Tariti gave away nothing. She was always hard to read; she possessed skill with the sword nearly equal to her brother’s but had always seemed to lack his streak of honor. Arta had never quite known what to make of her.

“There is one more thing, actually.” To Arta’s surprise, Darius turned to Latharna. “May I borrow Lady Dhenloc briefly? There’s a… matter I need to discus with her, knight to knight.”

“Latharna?” Arta asked. “Are you okay with that?”

“I think I can manage,” Latharna said, stepping forward. She and Darius regarded one another warily, two predators sizing one another up, and then they both nodded, seeming satisfied. Darius turned and began to walk back down the hall, Latharna following close behind.

“Wonder what that’s about?” Karani asked.

“I’m sure I’ll find out from Latharna,” Arta said. “That was admirable restraint, by the way. Or have you just had your fill of punching Sakrans lately?”

Karani shrugged. “What can I say? I may not like Darius, but like I told Dhenloc once, I’m not going to be the one to ruin that face by breaking his nose. Or any other part of it. Well, maybe if I took a holo first, but not…” she stopped suddenly as two knights in the green and violet of Nadar duchy approached, a grey-haired figure leaning on a cane walking between them. Duchess Laodamia had been a pillar of the council since before their parents were born; apparently her arrival was enough to quiet even Karani’s mouth.

Laodamia stepped forward and approached Arta, looking her up and down. “Your Majesty,” she said. “Do you have a moment? I think it’s time we talked.”


Curious despite herself, Latharna followed Darius down the corridor until they came to a lift; the Duke of Sakran paused to enter a floor number and then they stepped inside, the door closing behind them. As they began to rise, she glanced from Darius to Tariti; both Sakran siblings were determinedly facing forward in silence and resembled one another so strongly they might be mistaken for male and female versions of the same person. Despite herself, Latharna found herself sizing them up quietly; both of the ast Sakrans were renowned duelists, something she knew full well from experience. Tariti she knew she could defeat, though she had no doubt the young woman would make her work for her victory. Darius she was less sure about; they had fought before, but it had always ended inconclusively. A part of her itched to find out once and for all which of them was better.

She wondered if Darius felt the same way.

“So, do you think your father is sincere in wanting to help us?” she finally asked, breaking the silence.

“You were listening to that?” Tariti asked, her tone disapproving.

“I overheard some,” Latharna replied. “Enough, anyway. And I was talking to Darius.”

“I trust Father to look after himself and his interests, including his family,” Darius said finally. “And to think that he’s the only person who knows what’s best for us. I suspect there’s some truth in his offer, but I’m not sure how much. And he’s not liable to betray us to the Empire, in any case – whatever deal he had with Quarinis, he failed to hold up his end. If he tried to go to the Empire now, he’d probably be killed. He’s got too much of an instinct for self-preservation for that.” Darius shook his head at that last statement, as if saddened by his own assessment of his father’s character.

The lift door opened, and the three passengers stepped out into one of the palace’s guest wings; the one where the Sakran dignitaries were staying. Darius gestured for Latharna to follow as he and Tariti began to walk down the corridor, clearly knowing exactly where they were going.

“I’m curious about something,” Latharna asked. “Your father is one of the most famous people in the Dozen Stars, but I’ve never heard much about your mother. I hope I’m not stumbling into some shameful family secret, but I admit I was curious.” Curious because there was a streak of romanticism in Darius that she had noticed before, one which seemed unlikely to have come from Naudar. She wondered if perhaps his other parent was the source.

“It’s nothing shameful,” Tariti said. “Mother doesn’t have much to do with war and politics, though she’s from a well-connected family. She likes music. Composes it, actually. I’m not an expert myself, but I’m told her pieces are quite good. She always did seem disappointed that none of us followed in her footsteps.”

A composer, Latharna thought, feeling that she may have found part of her answer to her unspoken question. Part of her – the part that was a musician and not a warrior – suddenly wished she could meet the Duchess ast Sakran.

Before she could say anything else, Darius stopped at a door and opened it. Inside was the tastefully appointed sitting room of one of the guest apartments. Galen ast Sakran – who resembled a thinner, more sullen version of his older brother – was leaning against a wall and nodded at Darius as he came in. Another man was seated on the couch in the middle of the room, looking at the floor. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and when he looked up, Latharna saw his face was heavily bandaged, especially around the nose. Suddenly, she realized who this man must be.

“My lord,” the man said, nodding at Darius. When his gaze fell on Latharna, however, his eyes hardened, and if he’d been about to stand in a show of respect for his duke, he didn’t do it now. Instead, he just glared.

“Ark,” Darius said, then turned to Latharna. “Allow me to introduce Sir Ark ast Pontus, Knight of Sakran Duchy. A good man in a fight, but has a tendency to run his mouth, especially when he’s in his drink. Ark here was involved in a bit of an altercation the other night with Lady ast Katanes. You might have heard about it.”

“Oh, I did,” Latharna said, eyes narrowing as she regarded the man who had insulted her queen – and, she belatedly remembered, Latharna herself. “Why did you bring me up here to see him, Darius?”

“Because I may be the son of a traitor, but I am a gentleman and a knight,” Darius said stiffly. “I am responsible for the conduct of those under my command, and Ark’s insults and unfounded accusations shame me and Sakran Duchy.” He turned back to the knight. “Ark, I believe the queen’s sister already answered your insults on her behalf, but don’t forget that you also disparaged the honor of Lady Dhenloc. I brought her up here so that you may apologize to her, one knight to another. Am I clear?”

Ark barked a laugh. “And why should I do that?” he demanded. “Your pardon, my lord, but your father should’ve been king. I know you thought you were doing the right thing when you deposed him, but all you really did was snatch away Sakran’s rightful place on the throne. Doesn’t that embarrass you, to be a knight without equal in this Kingdom and to also be the person who cost our duchy victory?”

“My father had made a bargain with the Empire that would have doomed us all,” Darius said coldly. “And you’re wrong. There’s one knight in the Kingdom who is my equal. She’s standing here next to me.”

“That so?” Ark said, suddenly looking impressed. Apparently, Darius’s opinions still carried weight with him after all. “And here I thought she was just a pretty face the queen took a fancy too. But I’m not taking back what I said before. Artakane is a liar and a witch, and now I hear she’s gotten us dug into a war with the Empire – a war old Duke Naudar was trying to stop. And she had the gall to appoint this girl here as her Champion when she’s not even from the Dozen Stars! Everyone knows you can’t trust foreigners, and I say this one got Artakane wrapped around her little finger just because the little pretender went all ga-ga over her…”

He didn’t get a chance to say anything else; Latharna’s sword was out of its sheath, its tip pointed directly at his throat. “You had better choose your next words very carefully,” she said in a quiet, hard voice. “I don’t care if you insult me, but I won’t hear another word against Artakane. Do you understand?”

“So, there’s steel in you after all,” Ark said. “I guess Duke Darius wasn’t all wrong; maybe you’re not just an ornament. But I still say that you’re no real knight, Lady Dhenloc, just a jumped-up commoner who got where you are because you found your way into the right bed. And this is what I have to say for your witch queen!” And he spat onto the middle of the floor.

By Latharna’s side, Darius stiffened and put his hand on his sword, while Tariti gasped in shock. Galen, for his part, merely looked amused; Latharna idly wondered if he was rooting for her or Ark, or just enjoyed the prospect of conflict. But when she turned her gaze back to Ark, her eyes were hard. “I may not be from the Dozen Stars,” she said, “but I’ve studied your etiquette and I know you have just offered an insult that can’t go unanswered. I’d still be willing to let it go, but you didn’t just insult me – you mocked the honor of my queen, and as a knight and her champion, I can’t let that go.” She turned back to Darius and gestured with her sword. “I believe the things Sir Ark just said and did count as a challenge to a duel, correct?”

“They do,” Darius admitted, still looking stunned. Clearly, this wasn’t how he’d expected the encounter to play out.

“Then I accept,” Latharna said. “Gladly.”

Across the room, Ark looked back up at her and smirked, his eyes bright with malice. Perhaps he saw a chance not only to avenge his personal humiliation and broken nose, but the defeat of the Dukes’ Rebellion as well.

In Latharna’s heart, the joy of battle was rising once again in anticipation.


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Chapter Nine

Carann, Royal Palace

“Walk with me,” Duchess Laodamia said as she turned and headed down the corridor, her cane tapping loudly on the marble floor. Arta regarded her silently for a moment, nonplussed – from the way the old woman was talking, one would almost think she was the queen and Arta her vassal; but then, apparently age and seniority had their privileges – before quickly moving to keep pace with her. Her guards walked a respectful distance behind.

“What did you want to discuss, your grace?” Arta asked after a brief silence.

Laodamia smiled at her and then glanced back over her shoulder in the direction Latharna had gone. “Tell me, child,” she said, “are you planning on marrying that young woman?”

Whatever Arta had been expecting, this was certainly not it; she could feel her face reddening and struggled to keep her surprise from showing too strongly. “I admit I hadn’t really considered it, one way or another,” she said. “We’re still young, after all, and haven’t been seeing each other for that long. And at the moment I have other things on my mind.”

The old duchess regarded her shrewdly. “But you do love her, don’t you?”

Arta swallowed and nodded. “Yes,” she admitted quietly.

Laodamia sighed. “Then whether you marry her or not, that is something you will have to deal with in time,” she said. “You are a queen, Artakane. That means that you must make place the needs of the state above your personal desires, and the state, as a rule, expects its monarch to be wed.”

“Surely there are more important things to worry about right now than whether or not I’m married?” Arta asked incredulously. “Have you forgotten that we’re currently at war with the most powerful nation in this arm of the galaxy and potentially facing an invasion by alien marauders?”

Laodamia tapped her cane. “I did not say you need to wed immediately,” she said, “merely that it is something you need to be considering. I would have thought Mardoban might have talked to you about this, but then, he is a man, and when it comes to such matters, men tend to either be squeamish or think they know everything with little middle ground. I am not squeamish, and at my age I’ve learned to take a long view of events. And, in the long term, it is best for the Kingdom if you wed. Both for the purposes of creating firm alliances and, ultimately, for having heirs. Something I will note that you, for the moment, do not have, as your older sister has made it clear she does not want the throne and will not take it, and your closest cousin just got himself killed rather spectacularly not long ago.”

Arta was blushing furiously now – frankly, the prospect of being a mother was one she had never given much thought to and wasn’t something she was especially comfortable considering now – but with some effort she managed to master her reaction and regain some measure of royal decorum. “And so what would your advice be, your grace?”

Laodamia paused, considering. “The fact that you and Lady Dhenloc are both women raises some complications, but not insurmountably so,” she said. Marriages between couples of the same sex were not common among the Dozen Stars nobility, but they were hardly unheard of – Duchess Vashata had recently married her long-term mistress, and Duke Karous and his husband had been together for years. And while cloning was strictly forbidden by both the Canon and most secular laws, using genetic engineering to create an embryo combining both parents’ DNA was considered acceptable so long as such a child was not a direct copy of another person. And as women, Arta and Latharna would have a somewhat easier time than if they’d both been men, as they wouldn’t require a surrogate, whether a person or a machine, to carry a child of theirs to term. “Now, tell me,” the duchess continued, “my sources have been unable to find the pertinent information for me – what, exactly, is the status of Lady Dhenloc’s family?”

And here was the likely problem, and Arta’s heart sank and the thought. “She doesn’t know,” she said. “Latharna is an orphan. She was raised by a school headmistress who was her guardian but never officially adopted her. According to her, Latharna’s parents weren’t nobility, but that’s all we know.”

“Hmmm.” Laodamia pursed her lips thoughtfully. “That is a problem,” she said. “Royalty and nobility do not marry for love, child, at least not unless they are lucky. They marry for alliance. You would not be the first Dozen Stars monarch to marry a Realtran, and the people would accept that; they are, after all, our allies. But a Realtran commoner, who brings nothing to the marriage? That would be a problem. I fear many of the nobility would see it as a sign of weakness and sentimentality. And the common people might mistrust a monarch they saw as insufficiently one of their own.”

“So, are you suggesting I just cast Latharna aside?” Arta demanded. “I won’t do that. I love her!”

To her surprise, Laodamia smiled wistfully. “Ah, to be young again,” she said. “You don’t have to get rid of her – you wouldn’t be the first or last monarch to keep a mistress, and from what I hear the girl is a remarkable knight. But I am saying you should not marry her without seriously considering the consequences – and your other options. Tell me, are you only interested in women, or are you also attracted to men?”

“Both,” Arta said quietly, more embarrassed by this conversation than she’d ever been in her life, including the time as a small child when she’d worn her favorite dress to an event her foster-father had wanted her to attend without realizing Karani had spilled jelly on it.

“Well, that increases your options, anyway,” Laodamia said. “Lord knows you don’t need to be attracted to someone to marry them, but it helps. Now, the two most powerful duchies after Carann are Orlanes and Sakran, and both of their heirs are conveniently single. I hear you are already on friendly terms with young Pakorus; that’s good and might be useful. On the other hand, Darius ast Sakran is a highly accomplished warrior and a marriage with him might help seal the breach left by the rebellion. His siblings are available as well, of course. And, speaking of healing breaches, Tashir Duchy is also influential and young Ariana seems determined to grab your attention, if you really do find yourself more inclined that way.”

Arta managed to keep her composure, but it was difficult – especially where the Sakrans were concerned. Darius was attractive, she had to admit, but he always seemed more like a work of art than a person – she couldn’t imagine marrying him, or his sister Tariti. And Galen was out of the question entirely; Arta still remembered the sound of Karani’s leg breaking at the tournament, and she would never forgive Galen for that. “It’s all… rather overwhelming,” she finally said.

“I’m not saying you have to make a decision now,” Laodamia said. “But you should be considering it. If the war ends with the kingdom still here, our people will want stability and the promise of continuity.” Continuity, Arta understood, meant legitimate heirs. One could inherit of one was illegitimate – technically, Arta was a bastard herself, as Queen Aestera hadn’t been married to her father, though she’d left official documentation with Shiran that acknowledged and legitimized her. But legitimate heirs were usually seen as preferable. “You had to hear it from someone, child,” Laodamia continued, her eyes softening. “And if Mardoban wouldn’t do it, best it be from someone who is experienced in these matters. You don’t need to act or make a decision right now, but… remember what I’ve said. Your Majesty.” The old woman sketched a remarkably dexterous curtsey for someone her age and then turned and walked away, her cane tapping loudly on the floors once again.

She left a troubled and confused young queen in her wake.


Arta groaned and buried her heard in her hands as she sat back on her bed. “Tell me you didn’t,” she muttered to Latharna, who sat beside her. “First Karani, and now you too. Why is everyone around me suddenly going mad?”

“Yes, I agreed to a duel with Ark ast Pontus,” Latharna said, “because clearly the beating Karani gave him earlier wasn’t enough to knock sense into his thick head. And honestly, I agree with what Karani said the other day – if you’d been there and heard the things he was saying about you, you would have agreed with me.”

“That is not the point!” Arta hissed, turning to look at Latharna. “Why is it that everyone seems to think they have to leap to defend my honor? What kind of queen do I look like if I can’t take criticism? And right now, this is absolutely the last distraction I need.” Though, she supposed, the benefit of this latest misfortune was that it had – almost – completely driven her awkward conversation with Laodamia from her mind.

“Arta,” Latharna slowly, “I am your royal champion – defending your honor is literally my job. I’m here to fight the fights for you that are beneath a queen’s dignity. But if it does bother you so much, don’t think of me as defending only your honor, but my own as well. Ark insulted me too, after all. And frankly, I think this can potentially work out well for us – for you, I mean.”

Arta raised an eyebrow. “Really?” she asked. “Because at the moment I’m having a hard time seeing how I even get out of this without alienating one of the most powerful duchies in the Kingdom – a duchy whose support, as I have just been reminded, I desperately need in this war.”

“Actually, Darius seemed to approve, once he got over his initial shock,” Latharna said. “Ark all but said I only got my position by sleeping with you, which is an insult to my honor and my reputation. We don’t take such things so seriously in Realtran, but if I remember my etiquette lessons correctly, a knight of the Dozen Stars can’t let insults like that slide without shaming themselves. And the accepted response is an honor duel. Ark made the challenge; I just accepted. And since I’m your champion, if I’d backed down it would have looked bad for both of us.”

“And I can’t afford to look weak on the eve of a war with the Empire,” Arta said, nodding. “Though there were only, at my count, four other people in the room – not exactly a public shaming.”

“One of those four people was Galen,” Latharna reminded her. “I don’t exactly trust Darius and Tariti, but I respect them. Galen…”

“Hates me,” Arta finished, and sighed. “I know. And he’d probably make sure to spread word around.”

“But, if I duel Ark and win, then I avenge the insult, we show we’re strong, and if we’re lucky it will shut the people who think I don’t deserve to be a knight up,” Latharna said. “If anything, this may strengthen your position with people who are still uncertain. Your people are strange that way.”

“Yes, but you still have to beat Ark,” Arta pointed out. “Can you do it?”

Latharna regarded her flatly. “I hope that was a rhetorical question,” she said, and Arta smiled. There were areas where Latharna doubted herself and was insecure, but her confidence in her skill was the sword was sure and serene. “Now, what do I do next? I assume there is a procedure for this?”

“I’d have thought you would know,” Arta said. “You’re the one who had the fancy etiquette classes, after all.”

“Nobody has dueled for honor in Realtran for a hundred years,” Latharna pointed out. “It wasn’t something the curriculum emphasized.”

“Well, you need to agree to a time and a place,” Arta mused, “and weapons. I assume you’ll both want dueling swords, and the palace dueling hall should be an acceptable venue. And you’ll both need to pick seconds. I’d do it, but as queen I doubt I’m allowed. You can ask Karani.”

“I’m sure Ark will love that,” Latharna muttered under her breath as she remembered the broken nose he’d already sustained at Karani’s hands. She doubted he’d forgiven her for that, and honestly, even in these comparatively enlightened times, there were some men who simply couldn’t tolerate being defeated by a woman. She didn’t know if Ark was of that persuasion, but she thought it more likely than not.

Arta placed a hand on Latharna’s arm. “You can do this, my knight,” she said, staring directly into her champion’s red-tinted eyes.

A smile teased the edges of Latharna’s mouth. “I know,” she said. “I will make you proud, my queen.” Then she leaned in and kissed Arta squarely on the lips, and for that moment, nothing else mattered.


That evening, following another strategy meeting with the council, Arta sat cross-legged on her bed in a plain blue robe. The lights were dim and in the corner of the room Latharna harped gently, the effect lulling Arta into a state that wasn’t quite sleep or wakefulness. She rested her hands on her knees and breathed slowly, in and out, focusing carefully on each breath, excluding all else. It was a meditative technique Shiran had taught her to help calm and organize her mind, and to help her maintain the discipline she needed to use her Adept powers. For now, though, she mostly just needed calm. That was something in short supply these days.

The soothing music seemed to echo in the background of her mind as she focused on her breaths. In-out, in-out, in-out… slowly, she felt her eyelids drooping, the room dimming around her, her mind seeming to drift away. Her eyes closed…

And opened again to find that the room, the bed, Latharna and her harp – all were gone. Instead she found herself in a place where she had been once before, a place that was no place. She stood in the center of a forest, black tree trunks towering around her in a land filled with thick grey mist. This, Arta understood, was some manifestation of what Shiran and Midaia had called the psychic plane, the realm of pure thought and feeling that all people’s minds touched, but only Adepts could access deliberately. The last time she had come here, it had been in a dream. This time… this time, she wasn’t sure.

Last time Midaia had appeared here to guide and speak with her, but there was no sign of her sister now, or of Shiran or any other familiar figure. Only trees and fog. A part of Arta wanted to cry out for Latharna, to pinch herself to try and wake up, but another part – the part that was Adept – whispered that this was exactly where she needed to be. She had not found her way here by accident, she understood. She was called. There was something here that she needed to see… or to do.

There was no path marked through the trees, and every direction looked much the same as every other, but Arta set off determinedly between them, knowing only that instinct told her that this was the right way to go. She didn’t know how long she walked through the misty darkness, carefully avoiding obstacles in her way by instinct. Finally, she emerged from the trees and found herself in a place that she had never seen before. Here the forest ended in a sudden straight line and before her stretched endlessly a vast grey plain, seemingly formed of some stone that Arta had never seen before. The sky above was dark, with neither sun nor stars, but a silver light that had no source seemed to illuminate everything, and Arta had no difficulty seeing. Tentatively she stepped out onto it and, when nothing dangerous seemed to happen, she continued walking. What she sought was beyond this place, she knew.

At last she came to a place where the plain was cracked in perfect concentric circles, as if something had struck the ground here and left the stone broken in its wake. She made her way forward, slowly, carefully, and came at last to a small depression in the center of the rings. At the center of the depression, thrust point-first into the ground, was a sword.

And what a sword! It was beautifully crafted, every line and curve of the hilt and blade perfect in shape, and it seemed to be forged from pure sunlight, gleaming with a golden radiance that was the first splash of color she had seen since coming to this place. In fascination she reached out a trembling hand to seize the hilt, to wrench the sword free that she might admire it more closely, but at the last moment she pulled back. Something told her that this weapon did not wish to be disturbed; not now.

As her hand fell back to her side, Arta realized that she was not alone. Another figure stood on the sword’s far side, a shimmering, wraithlike figure that gleamed a slightly different shade of gold from that of the blade. She – for something inexplicable told Arta that the figure was female – was studying the sword carefully and seemed lost in thought. Arta raised a hand towards her, and saw, to her surprise, that it appeared just as insubstantial as the stranger’s, save that it was made from blue light instead of gold. “Hello?” she called. “Can you hear me?”

The golden figure started, then she fixed her gaze on Arta. “I can!” she said. “Who are you? I thought that I was alone here. Has the One brought us together, then?”

“I don’t know about the One,” Arta said, remembering that this was the name – or title – of the Alaelam deity. Was the stranger Alaelam, then? An Adept, surely, to have come to this place. “My name is Artak – just Arta.” For some reason it seemed that in this place, giving her full name might be dangerous.

And yet the golden figure’s eyes seemed to widen. “Arta – you are Artakane! The Adept Queen of the Dozen Stars!” She sketched a strange bow, one that seemed to Arta’s eyes less a gesture of deference and more one of respect exchanged between equals. “I am honored.”

“And who are you, then?” Arta asked.

“I am a dancer in sunlight and a disciple of the Way,” the stranger said. “I came here to think and meditate upon the strife that fast approaches; I did not expect to meet someone else here.”

“And where is here, exactly?” Arta asked. “What is this place – and this sword?”

“You have guessed that this is what is sometimes called the psychic plane,” the stranger said. “The realm of the One, where all things meet. It is the realm of thoughts, hopes and dreams of humankind – and of things older than humankind. It often shifts, but some things are constant. This sword is one of them. It has been here for centuries, and we do not know who placed it here. Perhaps it is a threat – or a promise.” She giggled then, and Arta thought she suddenly sounded very young, though she still couldn’t make out her features. “Some of the Disciples say it will only be drawn in the final days, but I think that sounds terribly dramatic, don’t you think? Sometimes a sword, as they say, is just a sword.”

Arta shook her head; she had barely understood half of that and opened her mouth to ask the stranger to explain what she meant, but the other woman suddenly froze and held a hand to her lips, or where her lips would be if they could be seen in this form. “Be still!” she said. “We are not alone. The Old Ones watch.” She gestured to her right, and Arta looked to see that a hill stood there where no hill had been before, and a figure stood atop it. For a moment she thought it was Midaia, for the black cloak was of the same style, but the figure’s face was completely obscured save for the pair of cold, gleaming white eyes that stared out from under the hood. For a long moment it stood there in silence, watching Arta and the stranger, and then it nodded to itself and turned and swept away, vanishing.

“What was that?” Arta asked.

“Something that was old when the first pyramids were raised in the deserts of Terra,” the stranger said. “They haunt the psychic plane sometimes; their business is their own. We stay clear of them when we can. They are not to be trusted. Listen to me now. I don’t think we met by chance. We fight the same enemy, you and I. I must leave you now, but I will seek you out in the waking world. Watch for me. You will know me when I see you. We have many things to discuss away from prying eyes.” She raised a hand in blessing. “I know your people do not follow the Way, but still – the One walk with you.”

Arta opened her mouth to ask the first of a hundred questions, to have some idea of what was going on here, but she suddenly felt hands shaking her shoulders. She shook her head, and when she opened her eyes again the plain and the sword were gone. She lay back in bed and Latharna was leaning over her, shaking her increasingly frantically and repeating her name over and over again.

“I’m awake,” Arta said, sitting up. “I’m all right. What happened.”

“I hoped you could tell me,” Latharna said. “You fell asleep and fell back on the bed, and then you started thrashing around and… and your eyes were glowing. I had no idea what to do, or who to ask. All I could try to do was wake you up. What happened, Arta? You saw something, didn’t you? Like mystics do, sometimes. I’ve read about this, but I’ve never seen it.”

“Yes,” Arta said quietly. “I saw something. Or someone. I just wish I knew what it meant.”


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Chapter Ten

Imperium Primus, Palatine City

The tall man wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself as he made his way down the crowded evening street, careful to keep his hood pulled up so that his face couldn’t be seen. He didn’t think Lucian – Licinius, as he called himself now – was looking for him at the moment, but he couldn’t be sure, and it was better safe than sorry. He also couldn’t be sure how much danger he was in if he was; for centuries, he and Lucian hadn’t tried to kill each other, only to prove that their own philosophy and vision for humanity was the correct one. But then, Lucian had become so much more erratic lately as he drew closer to what he saw as his goal that it was hard to say for sure.

The Imperial palace gleamed on its hill above the city, towering above even the grand cathedral and the arena, but the man paid it little heed. He’d seen it before, after all, many times; once, he had walked its halls. And thought its occupants might change over the centuries, the building itself, and what it stood for, remained much the same. A sign, the man thought, of the rot that had been building for so long at the heart of the Empire. A rot that, unfortunately, his old friend had been helping to spread.

But he had not created it. This rot was as old as humanity itself; Verus Licinius, who had once been Brother Lucian, was merely its latest carrier.

But Shiran, who had been Aurelius and many other names besides, had plans of his own. Ducking into a dark alley, he carefully picked his way along it before coming to a nondescript door. He punched a series of numbers into the keypad at its side and the door opened, and he stepped inside into a dingy, dimly lit warehouse. Several armed men and women stood guard between the rows of crates, and in the middle of a cleared space was a table and a man who sat by it. His face was hidden behind a blank holo-mask, but the nondescript robes he wore couldn’t hide a body gone somewhat to seed.

“Shiran,” the man said as the old Adept took a seat across from him. “You’re late.”

Shiran smiled. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t followed,” he said. “You may be aware I had a run-in with some of the charming members of the Adept Cabal the last time I was in the Empire, and I would prefer not to repeat the experience. Luckily for me, they weren’t in evidence.”

“Alaen’s dogs are busy with the war preparations,” the masked man said. “I doubt they’ll have the time to bother us.”

“Well, I’ll cloak our conversation, just to be on the safe side,” Shiran said. “And I trust this building has adequate security of its own?”

“I’ve owned it for years and it’s never failed me,” the masked man said, his tone smug. “The walls are reinforced and block out any scanners, and there’s more guards – and other security – than you’ve seen. We can talk in peace.”

“Good,” Shiran said. “Now, as for what I want to talk about – well, I think you can guess.”

“The war,” the masked man said. “I’ve already been in contact with one of your Dozen Stars nobles over it – Naudar, I think the name was. Haven’t heard from him in a while, though. Apparently, he’s been arrested; something to do with treason and insurrection. He’s lucky; our beloved Emperor would have had him torn apart in the Arena for the amusement of the masses if he’d pulled something like that here.”

“So, you don’t approve of how Licinius is running things?” Shiran asked wryly.

“Would I be here if I did?” the man asked. “You’re talking to me for the same reason Naudar was; because you know I have influence in the government here, and that I’m a reasonable man. One of the last ones in the court, sadly. The priests and most of the senators are sycophants, Decimus is a mad dog waiting to be let off the leash, and the less said of that ghoul Alaen, the better. And I place the blame for all of them at Licinius’s feet. When he came to power, he promised to be an agent of change, that he would purge the Empire of corruption and return our lost glory. But that, it seems, is his problem. He dreams of the glories of the past and sees no future for us save for a return to the time when we ruled all mankind.”

“And you don’t?” Shiran asked.

The masked man sighed. “Part of me does pine for the past, I’ll admit,” he said. “I doubt there’s a son or daughter of the Empire for whom that’s not true. But the past is gone, Shiran. The age of Imperial hegemony will never come again – and good riddance to it, I say. We need to make our way in the modern age as one nation among many, not waste our time looking back to an age that will never come again. But Licinius won’t see that. He’s a man obsessed.”

“He has been for a very long time,” Shiran said quietly.

His contact chuckled. “You almost sound like you know him,” he said. “But here’s the point – I don’t want this war, and I’m not alone, even if nobody else has the courage to say it. Lord, I don’t even have the courage to say it, at least not to Licinius’s face. But we just came off one war with the Alaelam and we’re not prepared for another, no matter what the Emperor and Decimus say. We’re spread too thin. And I have no ill-will towards the Dozen Stars; they split away almost five centuries ago. Licinius does, though. He hates that Kingdom, and he hates its queen for reasons I’ve never been able to understand.”

“I think I do,” Shiran said, but he didn’t elaborate. Yes, he knew why his old friend feared his newest student so badly – and he did fear her; it wasn’t just hate. Memories of an old dream resurfaced in Shiran’s mind, and once again, for times beyond counting, he bitterly regretted that he had ever spoken of it.

Finally, he shook his head and looked back up at his contact. “When the war comes,” he said, “and it will be soon, now, tell me this – will you help the Dozen Stars?”

“I can’t stick my neck out too far or I’ll lose my head,” the masked man said. “And then I’ll be no help to anyone. I can’t promise anything material. But I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t want this war, and that I don’t like what Verus Licinius and his cronies are doing to the Empire. If I see a chance to undermine them, I will take it; trust me on that.” He paused, thoughtful. “And I’ll say this – I might be able to trade information to young Artakane, for the right price. I’m a well-connected man, and I know many things. But I can’t let it be traced back to me, do you understand?”

Shiran sighed. “I do,” he said. “And I suppose that’s all I could reasonably hope for.” He held out his hand. “Do we have a deal, then?”

Though his contact’s face was hidden behind the holo-mask, Shiran got the sense that he was smiling. “We do.” He took the Professor’s hand and shook it.

I’m sorry, Arta, Shiran thought to himself. I know it’s not much, but it’s something. And I will try to get you more help; as much as I can. I have come too far and sacrificed to much to let you fail now, and I don’t intend to.


Al’Aymar Alaen paused at the plain door that stood before him, deep in the heart of the imperial palace. In all the decades he had dwelt here, he had only been summoned to this chamber a handful of times; a part of him shivered at the thought of what this summons now might portend. Alaen was a man of great faith, both in the power of the One and of his own destiny that must be fulfilled; there were few things that shook him. But some of the things he had seen in this room…

They did not frighten him; Alaen was not a man who knew fear. But sometimes they made him feel a certain twinge of… unease. But then, if it meant the fulfilment of his ambitions and the culmination of his righteous path, Alaen could live with unease.

The door slid open and the dark-robed Adept stepped inside, finding himself in a small, circular chamber. It was a plain meditation room of a slightly different design from his own chambers far below the palace, and much smaller – this chamber was not intended for use by the Adept cabal but by one man only, and, on occasion those who he deigned to work with to achieve his goals. Alaen did his best to ignore the elaborate geometric designs that had been carefully inlaid into the chamber’s floor. There were some things that did not bear thinking about, even for him.

Verus Licinius sat on a low couch against the far wall; he was clad in a plain violet robe and was apparently deep in rest or meditation, his legs crossed, and his eyes closed. Alaen approached him and bowed from the waist – not the bow of subject to superior, but of one respected ally to another. For now, of course, the emperor was the senior partner in their arrangement, but he was not, and never would be, Alaen’s master. And, if the Alaelam cleric had his way, he would not be the senior partner forever.

“My lord,” Alaen said, “you summoned me; I am here.”

“Welcome, old friend,” Licinius said, opening his eyes. “Do you have counsel for me?”

“I am not a military man, my lord, but Admiral Decimus has informed me that the armada is almost ready to move out,” Alaen said. “The war begins soon, as you have foreseen.”

“And what of my other old friend, Aurelius?” the Emperor asked. “Shiran, as he calls himself now? Have you found him yet?”

“No, my lord,” Alaen said. “We believe he is here, on Imperium Primus, but he is careful and slippery. We have not found him again, but when we do, we will not fail.” That Shiran had escaped from his Cabal still stuck sorely in Alaen’s throat.

“No, you will not,” Licinius said. “When you find Shiran again, do not engage him. That was your minions’ mistake. He is stronger than any of them – even stronger than you, old friend. And I do not want him dead. Not yet, anyway. We share too much history. When you find him, merely keep a watch on him until I give you orders otherwise. The events that are coming soon – I want him to be there. I want him to watch.”

“Of course, my lord,” Alaen said. “But surely you did not summon me here to your private chambers merely to discuss this matter?”

“No,” Licinius said, shaking his head. “There are other matters which require my attention. I require information, and to get it I must consult sources that will require a great expenditure of effort to contact. I will require your help in this.”

“Of course,” Alaen said, bowing his head. It was as he’d feared, then. Well, the Emperor would not have engaged upon this course unless he felt it absolutely necessary. The best thing to do now would be to assist him and get things over with as quickly as possible.

A part of Alaen briefly considered withdrawing his strength from the Emperor’s at the midpoint of the ritual, leaving him to be consumed by the forces he tried to control and creating a power vacuum Alaen himself could step in to fill. As always, he rejected it – no Alaelam would ever be accepted as Emperor, and there was no guarantee Licinius would die. For now, Alaen needed him, and that need bound the two unlikely allies together far more strongly than any bonds of friendship.

The Emperor rose from his couch and strode into the center of the room, beckoning Alaen to follow a step behind. When he reached the strange geometric pattern, he knelt at its edge, Alaen taking his place beside him. Licinius raised his hands, and violet light began to play along his fingers; Alaen did the same, though his hands were shrouded in shadow. Then, together, they placed their hands flat against the pattern’s edge.

At once the symbol flared to brilliant life as the Adepts’ energies coursed through it. It burned in the center of the room like fire, and as it did so, Alaen could almost imagine that he heard a terrible call echo in his mind, a summons that reached beyond Imperium Primus and out into space – and beyond space into realms that lay hidden from human sight.

There were those who said that science and mysticism were somehow opposites; Alaen knew that they were fools. Mysticism was a science – this was one of the core elements of Matari’s teachings. The cosmos obeyed rules, and with patience and study those rules could be understood, and through that understanding it became possible to create procedures that produced expected, repeatable results. And yet the universe was a domain with many chambers; in the realm of the physical, those rules were dominated by laws of physics and biology, of engines and circuits and chemical reactions. But there were other realms beyond the merely physical, and while those realms could not be seen with eyes, they followed their own rules, and those rules could be understood. Adepts could see those realms, walk in them, and manipulate them.

But there were other things that dwelled in the darkness beyond human understanding. And, sometimes, if one were careful, they could be forced to reveal themselves and share their secrets – secrets that no creature of mortal flesh had ever guessed.

The symbol on the meditation chamber’s floor was a lure and a prison for one such entity. Even now, the call in Alaen’s mind was dimming, but another awareness was growing. Something was coming from the great darkness, pulled across the void by the call of the symbol and the will of the two mighty Adepts who commanded it. There was a great flash of light and a roar of sound, and then a shape took form in the air above them. What it was, exactly, could not be said, for its body seemed to flow and twist and looking at it too long did nothing but hurt the eyes and dazzle the will. But there was intellect there, and malice. Alaen’s distant ancestors on Lost Terra would have called it a djinn; Licinius’s would have called it a daemon. By any name it was not something to be toyed with lightly.

But Alaen and Licinius had dealt with this particular creature before, and they were equal to the task.

Why have you summoned me? A voice that was not a voice asked from the ever-changing chaos.

“I require information,” Licinius said. “You exist outside of time; you know things that have not yet come to pass. I have an enemy. You know her. You know why I fear her. I prepare my legions against her, but I must know – is this enough? What must I do to end this threat?”

The entity’s form seethed. And why should I help you?

“Give me the answer I seek, and I shall let you free,” Licinius promised. “Try to cheat me, and I will bind you here for an eternity!”

The entity seemed to laugh. You have not the power.

Licinius smiled coldly. “You think I do not?” he asked and raised his hands, gesturing for Alaen to do the same. Energy pulsed along both Adepts’ hands, wrapping the entity in a cage of force that constricted tightly around it. The thing thrashed and struggled, desperate to break free, and then finally, after what seemed an eternity, gave a ghastly yowl and slumped against the floor.

You must separate her from the source of her strength, the entity finally said, its not-voice weary and defeated. You must bring her before you, and she must die by your own hand. Only then shall the threat be ended. Only then shall you be secure.

“Can it be done?” Licinius asked.

I see many whens and hows and whys, the entity said, and in the future you would make, you will reign ten thousand years. It is in your grasp. But you must seize it.

“Do you know anything else?” Licinius demanded. “Answer me!” He clenched his fist and the cage of energy tightened once again around the captured entity, but it did not speak again, finally, Alaen put his hand on the Emperor’s arm and he sighed, releasing his grip.

“Very well,” Licinius said. “You have told me what I sought to know. You may go – but I may call upon you again. And be warned – if you have deceived me, then the agony you have known now is but a taste of what I shall bring to bear against you!”

The entity pulsed again as if with laughter, but it spoke no further word. Alaen and Licinius laid their hands once again on the symbol – the hieroglyph of the entity’s true name, which no human mouth could pronounce – and the light dimmed, then died. The entity began to fade, but before it was gone completely, it pulsed one final time.

Beware, it said. The Old Ones watch. Then it was gone.

As soon as it had vanished, Licinius fell forward onto his hands, breathing heavily. Alaen knelt by his side and helped him sit up. “Are you all right, my lord?” he asked. For now, at least, keeping Licinius alive was paramount. He was still useful to the One. “Do you require another offering? I can have one brought here within the hour.” The Emperor had just partaken of a victim not long ago, but he seemed to be requiring them more and more frequently lately, especially when he exerted himself. And he had borne the brunt of binding the daemon to his will; Alaen had merely supplied further energy.

Licinius waved a hand in the negative. “No,” he said. “I am weary, for the moment, but I will be fine. And I know now what I must do.” He turned to face Alaen directly, the ancient eyes in that ageless face boring directly into Alaen’s behind his mask. “Separate her from her power, the creature said. The girl’s strength is in her kingdom, and her companions. We must take them from her.”

His eyes narrowed. “Gather your cabal, old friend, and bring them to me at once. I have a mission for you all, and it must begin without delay.”

Alaen bowed again, his expression concealed. “As you wish, my lord,” he said.


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